Movie Review: Big Eyes
The saga of Margaret and Walter Keane is one of the strangest the artistic community has ever encountered. The story goes that Margaret painted beautiful portraits of sad doey-eyed children, while her husband sold her work under his name. In fact, not only did Walter sell the original canvases painted by Margaret, he also pioneered the business model of reproducing the artwork on an industrial sale. His business ingenuity was a major influence on Andy Warhol, and is largely responsible for the current state of museum gift shops all over the world. Tim Burton chronicles this absurd tale to mixed effect in his in his latest film Big Eyes.
The film opens on a 1950’s suburban landscape, popping with a palate of bright florescent colors that bring to mind the bolder films of the auteur’s early years. In a burst of defiance, Margaret (Amy Adams) leaves her husband and sets out to San Francisco with her daughter Jane. As she struggles as a single mother selling her artwork for pennies on the dollar she meets her soon-to-be husband Walter (Christoph Waltz).
Walter is a real estate agent, who claims to be a classically trained artist that dreams of leaving the corporate world behind for a career in art. Immediately drawn to Margaret’s talent, the couple soon marry and combine their efforts in furthering each other’s careers. As the salesmen for both of their work, Walter claims his wife’s beautifully heartbreaking art as his own. This white lie snowballs into a massively successful artistic career, and in a few short years Walter is “painting” portraits for celebrities and international diplomats.
However, while Walter is schmoozing San Francisco’s elite, Margret is resigned to her studio, forced to work 16 hour days pumping out her now profitable artwork. As Walter’s celebrity grows, he becomes exceedingly more psychotic and dominating over Margret. After numerous death threats from Walter, Margret finds the strength to leave and announce the truth behind the now famous big eyed children.
The story and aesthetic of Margaret’s artwork are perfect for Burton’s artistic sensibilities. However, the normally self-indulgent director takes a very straightforward approach to the film. While the restraint shown by Burton is admirable, it’s hard not to feel that Big Eyes is a missed opportunity for another zany Burton masterpiece.
First, there are moments of pure brilliance throughout the film. In particular the director depicts a series of television interviews between Walter and his critics with the stark and satirical black and white aesthetic used in Ed Wood. Furthermore, there is a point in the movie in which the crushing guilt of Margret’s lies begins to manifest itself as she begins to see her friends and neighbors as the big eyed characters that inhibit her artwork. These scenes give the film a surreal quality that impresses on a visual level, while artistically depicting the constant anguish of Margaret’s life. Finally, the film ends in an absolutely ridiculous courtroom battle that is so damn funny that it nearly redeems all the other issues in the film.
Unfortunately, these scenes are far and few in between. The rest of the film is quite enjoyable, although slight in comparison. The rise and fall of Walter is depicted relatively straightforward, without very much of the creative camera work and surreal imagery that made Burton a household name. The pace suffers immensely during these portions. While the restrained portions remain relatively entertaining, they scream of lost opportunity for Burton to truly shine.
What truly stood out in the film were the performances by Waltz and Adams. Waltz portrays Walter with his signature charisma, that according to interviews, actually needed to be toned down from Walter’s actual personality to remain believable. On the other hand, Adams gives a positively heartbreaking performance. She has the acute ability to convey a novel’s worth of emotion in one simple glance. Both actors have been nominated for Golden Globes, and it’s not hard to predict that they will both likely go on to nab Oscar nominations for their respective roles.
Here, the criticism of a “missed opportunity” is a compliment in disguise. The portions of Big Eyes that resonated where so good, that it is hard not to wish the whole film was given such a loose and surreal adaptation. In terms of its rank among Burton’s filmography, it falls somewhere between Ed Wood and Big Fish.