Those searching for a cinematic distraction this Christmas will have plenty of options, especially if you're a fan of the well-meaning biopic. No genre is more blindly associated with "importance" by both studio chief and audience member alike, and this assumption stems from Hollywood's fever-pitch marketing, deeming the winter season hallowed grounds for Oscar hopefuls (and the occasional action comedy that uses assassination to poke fun at one of the world's dictatorships). Such rationale deliberately deceives and distracts from the fact that good and bad films are released at all times of the year. Vigilant moviegoers understand this all too well.
What's interesting about the last gasp of 2014's release schedule (The Interview debacle notwithstanding) is just how many biopics are being unleashed. The Theory of Everything, Rosewater, Wild, Foxcatcher and Exodus: Gods and Kings have all hit San Diego screens in the last month. The pattern won't be letting up; on Christmas Day, three more highly anticipated examples get released with awards aspirations in tow. Like those in the aforementioned list, each adapts history to reflect the complexities of its subject, with varying degrees of ambition, some doing so seemingly in a vacuum. None is radical enough to warrant invasive computer hacking and terrorist threats.
Tim Burton's Big Eyes can safely be labeled the most benign of the bunch. It's a gelatinous, tedious look at the life of San Francisco painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose conniving conman of a husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz), took credit for her paintings and attained national celebrity. The film willfully concludes that the past may be worth revising but also that it must be done through the lens of candy-colored melodrama. No room for serious contemplation of feminism or cultural iconography here.
As with any biopic, period detail (architecture, clothing, speech patterns) remains important to Big Eyes as it progresses through the tumultuous 1960s. Burton lazily recreates the era by focusing on public canvases and reference points, places for characters to momentarily experience and then move on without much thought to the connection between time and place. The filmmaker is working on autopilot, each moment of Big Eyes spewing the kind of organic self-importance that can be achieved only by a once-master filmmaker finalizing his descent into irrelevance.
Known for his gothic and surrealist world building, Burton has now completely disavowed the danger inherent in his wildly funny and satirical comedy Mars Attacks! and the fringe humanity of his previous biopic, Ed Wood. Hopes that Burton will ever reclaim these attributes are downright futile. Big Eyes is such a slog stylistically and thematically that it's hard to believe this many talented performers and collaborators blindly followed him down the rabbit hole.
Tip-toeing back a bit further in recent American history, Angelina Jolie's sophomore directorial effort, Unbroken, trips over many of the same obstacles as Burton's film, only the thud produced by its fall is far louder. It proclaims Olympic athlete and World War II prisoner of war Louis Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) a mensch for the ages, superhuman in his ability to transcend challenges big and small. "If I can take it, I can make it," he says time and again, clueing the audience in on a key motif of courage, just in case you missed the point.
Unbroken tries to cram in multiple genres within its gargantuan running time. It's a coming-of-age-film-meets-sports-movie-meets-war-saga-meets-cross-cultural-character-piece. Each of these sections fails to transcend Louis past his one-dimensional status, leaving O'Connell, who's an amazing young actor (see Starred Up for proof), to quietly limp from scene to scene without any room to breathe.
Whereas Burton once had talent and innovation to spare, it's clear from this film and her debut effort In the Land of Blood and Honey that Jolie does not. She uses a lumbering flashback structure that seems pieced together via Cliff's Notes, leaving the interactions between Louis and his Japanese tormentor reeking of insincerity and manipulation. While it will surely be a heavy hitter in the Oscar race, Unbroken is the purest example of what legendary film critic Manny Farber described as "white elephant art."
By comparison, Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game looks like gold sterling. Cordially directed and sporting a lovely score by Alexandre Desplat (who seemingly composes for every movie these days), the film stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the brilliant and eccentric mathematician who helped break the Enigma code during WWII. Turing's repressed homosexuality rides as an undercurrent to this historical record, important to the conflict within the film but not egregiously manipulated to seem overly progressive.
Like a proficient but unassuming quarterback, Tyldum manages the game well enough for the great Cumberbatch to chew scenery. The actor crafts a tightening ball of nerves and anxiety with Turing, elevating the man beyond mere oddball and giving him real internal conflict and external doubt. Even if the film struggles with many of the same pratfalls that hinder Big Eyes and Unbroken, such as easy resolution of human conflicts, it remains an effortless, charming and sometimes endearing throwback.
While The Imitation Game handily defeats the competition within this current crop of biopics, superior options reside on the horizon. Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner, Ava DuVernay's Selma and Clint Eastwood's American Sniper are all daring in the way they supplant the standard operating procedures of the biopic to explore nuances of their central characters. Each is also aware of the way politics and the world at large impact these characters' desires and goals, proving that "based on a true story" doesn't have to be a death knell for filmmaking ingenuity.