Tim Burton dials down the gothic and the weird for this surprisingly straightforward drama based on a real-life art fraud story.
I haven’t watched a new Tim Burton movie since his 2005 double of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Corpse Bride, and the general consensus seems to be that he’s been in an artistic slump for a while now. Like 2003’s Big Fish, Big Eyes can be called a modest success. It certainly helps that the real story behind the film is so utterly strange and fascinating.
The big eyes refer to the paintings of sad-looking waif children with oversized eyes – windows into the soul – that became hugely popular in the late 1950s and 60s. Dismissed as kitsch by the art world, they connected with the masses, generated huge income from the sales of paintings and prints, and achieved a popular icon status that made “serious” art critics gnash their teeth in disgust. What wasn’t known until much later is that their creator Margaret Keane allowed her husband Walter to take credit for her work and be the extroverted face of the Keane brand. After finally breaking away from Walter, Margaret faced him in a bitter legal battle in a Hawaiian court where each was set on proving that they were the artist.
When we first meet Margaret (Amy Adams), she’s busy fleeing from her first marriage, taking off to San Francisco in a car with a couple of suitcases and her young daughter. There, she meets Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) when they both exhibit their work at an outdoor art market – she paints children with enormous sorrow-filled eyes, and he tries to sell charming if trite Parisian street scenes. None of them find much favour with the gallery owners who are focused on abstract modern art, but unlike the shy wallflower Margaret, Walter is a natural-born talker and self-promoter.
First, his gift of the gab convinces Margaret to marry him when she’s in danger of losing the custody of her daughter to her ex-husband. Then, when Margaret’s paintings begin to attract the admiration and serious money, he takes the credit and persuades Margaret that, as long as they’re both making money, it’s fine that everyone thinks him to be the artist, since he’s so much better suited for the limelight. Though troubled and unhappy, Margaret goes along. Soon, Walter is rubbing shoulders with the celebrities and giving interviews on talk shows, while Margaret is churning out the paintings in her studio. Because no one can know the truth, she finds herself in a lonely and isolated place, forced to shut out her friends and her own daughter.
There’s more than one parallel to Ed Wood, Burton’s masterpiece: both films are affectionate portraits of critically reviled outsiders with a sincere and earnest love for what they do. Big Eyes doesn’t argue either way as far as the artistic merit of Margaret’s work goes, but her waifs are without a doubt a true expression of her soul. Amy Adams’ quiet, sensitive and vulnerable performance does a wonderful job engaging the viewer’s sympathy. Behind the meekness and passivity, you at times get a sense of some trapped rebellious fire, and in the end it’s gratifying to see Margaret finally escape the shackles of what essentially is an abusive relationship.
Christoph Waltz is unfortunately a disappointment, playing Walter with broad strokes as a one-note caricature. He comes off as a slimy untrustworthy bastard right from the start, complete with a manic smile of a psycho that should have sent any reasonable woman running away screaming, so there’s nowhere for the character to go but be even more cartoonishly evil and deranged. Though he’s clearly having fun with the role, a bit more light and shade would have been welcome. Waltz was so unforgettably amazing in the two Tarantino films he appeared in, it’s a damn shame that so few mainstream directors since figured out how to utilise his talents.
If I didn’t know that Big Eyes was Tim Burton’s film, I probably wouldn’t have easily guessed it. Other than the sequence in which Margaret hallucinates the freakish oversized eyes staring at her from the faces of grocery store customers, the director plays it relatively straight in terms of visuals, leaving it to the story itself to supply the outlandishness. It’s certainly no Ed Wood, but it’s nice to see a more stripped down and intimate film from the director who’s been coasting on his trademark fantastical visuals for too long.