It’s a sad day when we say goodbye to the film career of a director who brought us so much early on in his career. But better to admit to ourselves that the director of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Batman Returns, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood is dead and gone then to go on any further with the annual charade of grimly trooping into his films and trying to convince yourself that some of the old spark remains. Down that road lies the madness that lets them say Midnight in Paris is a return to form.
Before I go any further, first an apology. Some months ago, I saw a Dark Shadows trailer and wrote that it looked like a return to form for Burton. From the trailer, I somehow sensed that his early balance of eerie/mundane had been restored. I should have known better than to make such assumptions on the basis of a trailer. Come to think of it, looking at the trailer again, its not even that great itself. It must’ve been late when I wrote it. Or it must’ve been blinding hope breaking through. Anyhow, I was wrong and I apologize to my readership for being an idiot. You deserve better.
So Dark Shadows, as any sane person would have seen, is another of those thingies where Johnny Depp does some old star’s accent and gives wild-eyed reaction shots, while Burton art directs the hell out of every frame and puts fire-breathing seahorses in every sconce and dyes the women’s hair crazy colors and there’s no real point to the film other than that.
When you live in LA, or maybe just when you live in the world, a lot of people tell you their ideas for movies. Their ideas are usually along the lines of “There’s this guy who wears pajamas everywhere and he finds himself in the future.” Or something like that. And if they ever sit down to try to write the thing, they find out that that isn’t actually an idea of a film, it’s an idea for the first three scenes of a film. But somehow, when people sit down to do these adaptations of TV shows or of SNL skits, they forget that and “Guy in weird costume. Funny accent. In a different time period.” And when they should stop writing on page ten and step back and think about what are we really making a movie about here, somehow, with the incentive of a zillion dollar script deal, their hands just keep moving and filling up pages with stuff. A script is only about a hundred pages. And if you’ve got one joke, between set up and execution, that can fill up about a page and a half. So you just have to tell your joke 66 times more or less and you’ve got a script. And if you’ve got a director who has apparently stopped really caring about having real stories or characters in his films, he’ll take a look at your first draft and say, that looks great. Let’s send it to wardrobe. And there you are. That is the recent career of Tim Burton apparently (with the almost exception - almost - of Sweeney Todd) and that is the plot of Dark Shadows.
If you saw the trailer and thought the joke of Johnny Depp being in the 1970’s and talking about the things around him like he leaped out of a Wilkie Collins novel is funny (I kinda did), just think about how you’ll like doing that joke 66 times.
The tragedy is of course, Tim Burton used to be able to make films look great and weird, and also be about something, to have genuine feeling and tragedy. At least Woody Allen has the decency to make his current atrocities look different from his greats so he’s not just robbing the form while forgetting the function. But with Burton now it’s like you’re on the Disneyland ride of one of his early films.
It actually almost works for about half the film. The art and Depp’s mugging are still so strong they just about get you to that point before the pointlessness of the whole thing starts to make the floor crumble beneath them. I can’t recall recently seeing a worse third act than this one. You can palpably feel the moment when it turned 4 AM in the writer’s offices, everyone was exhausted, could hardly sit up and someone suggested they should go home and get some rest and finish up in the morning, but someone else said, No, I’m sick of this stupid script. Let’s just pound out ten more scenes now and be done with it. That’s about how it feels to watch it.
On the upside, the young boy in it, Gulliver McGrath, looks uncannily like a ten year old Benedict Cumberbatch. So that gave me something to do during the movie, trying to figure out whether maybe it was made 20 years ago and has been on the shelf that long. It would have explained everything. Except Chloe Moretz ruined that theory.
The Rushfield Babylon Rating: Four stars out of ten.
It’s almost hard to remember that Tim Burton used to be a really great director. In the first run of his career he made a half-dozen films about freakish misfits that had genuine pathos, emotion and a brilliant gift for comedy. Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Nightmare Before Christmas were films most of all about real characters in genuine extremis. Batman Returns is the best film, perhaps the only good film, of the Post-Adam West/Pre-Nolan Batman sequence. You can not watch that film without your heart going out to Danny Devito’s Penguin. Ed Wood is a genuine masterpiece.
All these films had the unmistakable look and feel of the Burton universe, but they were first and foremost about characters and never lost sight of that beating heart beneath the art direction.
But then precisely at the moment of Sleepy Hollow, it was like the genie came out of the bottle and refused to go back in again. Burton fell so in love with his art department toys that every film just became this gigantic wind-up doll Edward Gorey confection which left you feeling like you were going into diabetic shock fifteen minutes in. I can’t recall a director following such a great run so immediately with such a gruesome run - Mars Attacks, Planet of The Apes, Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland - you’d be hard pressed to find a memorable, living character in any of these. Johnny Depp’s mugging and simpering gave some of them a quivering simulacrum of lifelike pinache, but in the end were just another effect on a big nauseating fun house ride. Only Sweeney Todd came close to breaking free of the jewel box, but in the end the design swallowed even Sondheim’s powerful story.
I pitched a script once to a producer who at the end of my pitch explained that I was telling a story of normal characters in a weird world, while his company made films about weird characters in normal worlds. It seemed a ridiculous point at the time but in retrospect, that is a choice one makes in style and voice. Burton’s early films were about fundamentally off-characters in world’s that may have been stylized wacky but essentially played by earth-bound rules, be it Gotham City or Ed Wood’s Hollywood. The pain of those films was the characters desperation to fit and prosper in those traditional structures - for Pee Wee to just find his bike, or for the ghosts in Beetlejuice to keep their house - while some enormous issue (having scissors for hands, being 6 year old children in grown men’s bodies, being ghosts, having no talent…) made them fundamentally unsuited for that world.
What happened post-Sleepy Hollow was he flipped to weird characters in weird worlds, giving the audience no-respite from the wackiness, no non-wacky safe harbor anywhere.
When I heard he was making Dark Shadows, I assumed it would be much more of the same. The TV show after all is one of the wackiest creations in entertainment history. I considered putting the movie on my least anticipated films of the year list, so thoroughly have I given up on Burton after 18 years since his last triumph. But behold, while you can’t really judge anything by a trailer, it looks like it has the energy, the beating heart and the comic wit of Burton at his best. While there’s a fair amount of 50’s kitsch afoot, the natural Burton order of weird character/normal world seems basically restored. It looks funny! Go figure, I’m actually looking forward to a Tim Burton film.
But if he screws me this time, this truly will be the end.
Important to note by the way: his first period of genuine great film making brought him only middling box office success at best, often much worse. The second Burton era of stylized schlock has been enormously successful financially. Which is a sad tragic fact about where film audiences are today.