Tim Burton restrained his dark daffiness in making the kitsch-art biopic “Big Eyes.” The film stars Amy Adams as Margaret Keane, the shy housewife who created phenomenally popular paintings of big-eyed waifs in the 1960s, but whose charismatic husband stole the credit for the critically despised but incredibly lucrative work. While Margaret enjoyed the financial success of her work, she still lived under the burden and humiliation of her deception, unable to even tell her own daughter that she was the “Keane” who signed the paintings.
Cristoph Waltz plays Walter Keane, an opportunistic businessman with unrealized artistic dreams. He spies the winsome Margaret and, taking advantage of her vulnerability as a single mother, soon convinces her to marry him.
Walter has the right combination of business acumen, showmanship and loose morals to make a success of their art business. He sets up a little show of his Paris streetscapes and his wife’s weird portraits of sad children, and an innocent misunderstanding leads him to take credit for her work. As their popularity grows, he never looks back.
Adams is meek but intelligent in her role; after all, the film opens with her character leaving her first husband, taking their daughter and striking out for an exciting new life as a painter in San Francisco. That she soon jumps back into the financial security of a marriage is just one of her conflicts. She’s not entirely the put-upon secret painter; she’s complicit in a spectacularly lucrative scheme, even if it wasn’t her idea.
The acting styles of the two leads are as much of a contrast as their characters. Waltz starts big and just goes bigger. By the film’s climax he’s jumped the shark. A story that took some time to build ends rather abruptly. What began in detail ends in broad strokes, a bit too broad. Waltz in particular seems like he had another appointment to get to and was keen to wrap things up.
“Big Eyes” was an inherently interesting story, but the handling of the tale was mixed. My favorite scene was when Margaret Keane, as her work begins to appear on posters and household items in a huge grocery store display, wanders through a candy-colored supermarket, particularly past a row of Campell’s soup cans meant to remind us of Andy Warhol, and begins to see real people with her signature gigantic eyes.
This film could have been made by anybody; Tim Burton didn’t bring enough of his style to it. Surely he can adapt his vision to a story that is more straightforward than his usual films. It’s a good story, though, and Adams is memorable as a quietly tortured woman.
The most compelling conflict was not between the couple but between Margaret and the perception of her work. When critics lambaste the paintings as not being real art, Walter howls with outrage, but it’s Margaret who is genuinely crushed. Her sincerity never falters, and that is what makes her truly an artist. Perhaps it was appropriate that there was a scene of a fake artist between her and the public; Walter was just another level of reproduction.
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