Any filmmaker with as distinct a pedigree as Tim Burton runs the risk of self-parody. After a while, one kitschy, outsized pop-culture extravaganza starring Johnny Depp becomes indistinct from the next.

So it's great to see one of our most unique stylists take a temporary break from the worlds of "Alice in Wonderland" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" to engage with real people and a real story in "Big Eyes."

The film offers heightened characterizations and a healthy degree of Burton's arch sense of macabre humor but the subject matter is quite serious: an unpacking of one of the most significant art frauds in history, when Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) passed off wife Margaret Keane's (Amy Adams) unique big-eyed paintings as his own.

The tone is a bit of a mess, with Adams' sincere and internalized work as Margaret seeming to belong in a different movie than Waltz's comically overwrought performance as Walter. The latter strains, struts and slurs his way from frame to frame; he acts up a frenzy of melodramatic hysteria that rivals the best of Nicolas Cage.

The unwieldiness extends to the visuals, a pastiche of exaggerated mid-20th Century imagery and bright colors that belie the troubling story being told.

Burton brings the disparate elements together into an affecting whole, however, by keeping his focus squarely on the struggle and triumph at the heart of the story, as an abused artist and wife develops the means to stand up for herself and assert control over her life's work and future.

 

‘Big Eyes’

3 stars

Directed by Tim Burton

Starring Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Krysten Ritter

Rated PG-13