Review by-Jarrett Leahy
Based on a true story, Big Eyes is the intriguing tale of painter Margaret Keane, an artist whose uniquely styled portraits became extremely popular during the 1960’s despite being derided by much of the art establishment as “hack work.” However, instead of this being a time of great joy, Margaret’s life becomes an unending nightmare, as her husband Walter, an aspiring artist in his own right, begins taking credit for her work to “help drum up more sales.” Fueled by Walter’s gift for self-promotion, Margaret’s work becomes more and more popular, setting in motion one of the largest cases of art fraud in U.S. history. Fearful of what might happen if their secret is revealed, Margaret reluctantly agrees to continue painting her “Big Eyes” in silence while Walter, a promotional virtuoso, becomes one of the biggest-selling artists of the 1960’s.
Over the last thirty years, thanks to movies like Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Edward Scissorhands, director Tim Burton has carved out a singular and easily recognizable style that has made him an auteur of the kitschy macabre. Personally, I must admit I’ve never had a great affection for most of Burton’s work, other than his enchanting 2003 fantasy drama, Big Fish, but I can certainly appreciate that there are those out there who connect with Burton’s peculiar filmmaking techniques and subject matter—peculiarities missing in this film. If I were an ardent fan of Burton, I’d be sorely disappointed, as the film has so few recognizable attributes of a Burton creation. I remain curious then as to exactly what it was about this long since forgotten stain on the art world that would appeal to a man of much more…bizarre tastes.
Set in San Francisco during the late 50’s and 60’s, Big Eyes is one of Burton’s most straightforward storylines, topping even Big Fish in that distinction. The shining highlight of this period drama, as with just about everything else she’s in, is the first-rate performance of Amy Adams. A modern day Deborah Kerr, Adams, a 5-time Academy Award nominee, has become one of the preeminent actresses of this generation. Through Adam’s capable depiction, we feel Margaret’s artistic passion and emotional connection to her paintings. Adams also captures the insufferable pain of a woman being asked by her husband, the man who is supposed to be her partner in life, to lie about her work, not only to outside world, but also to her beloved daughter Jane. In the film, when asked why she paints her eyes so big, Margaret’s response is simply, “The eyes are the window of the soul.” And like many of Margaret’s famous paintings, Adams’ affectionate stare unveils a kaleidoscopic range of emotions, as if her character’s inner strife has become too great to suppress and conceal.
A story so artfully deceitful as this has to have a villainous type as its mastermind, and Walter Keane, a would-be artist with a quick-witted tongue, is just that character. A natural salesman with a zest for the limelight, Walter saw the opportunity to turn his wife’s work into an art empire and ran with it. A two–time Academy Award winner with an astute ability to play more brash characters, Christoph Waltz’s exuberant portrayal of Walter captures the brazen and unabashed glibness of this swindling con-artist who, despite glaring evidence to the contrary, never wavered in his claim of being the real artist behind the Big Eyes paintings. While admittedly feeling a slight uneasiness over the fact that Walter, who passed away back in 2000, couldn’t defend himself from the film’s more disparaging depictions, after reading up on the man’s background story, I think it’s fair to say that, based on the Walter’s real-life reputation, Burton and Waltz had little need to exaggerate to come up with this devious portrayal. And I must concede that, regardless of how I or anyone else feels about the man’s audacity or conniving ways, there’s little denying that Walter Keane’s P.T. Barnum style of self-promotion had a lasting impact on the art world, as he was later credited for inspiring fellow artists of the time including Andy Warhol.
For much of this country’s younger generation, the story of a woman agreeing to let her husband take/steal credit for her work will probably seem inconceivable. However, to their credit, what Burton and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (the writing team also responsible for Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and Man on the Moon) are so adeptly able to capture is the archaic, male chauvinistic beliefs that Margaret Keane and so many other women of that generation were subjected to as well as how those beliefs played into Walter’s ability to prey on his wife’s naivete. Unfortunately though, as a whole, and I say this in the nicest way possible, Big Eyes tells a fairly fascinating story in a fairly vanilla way. While Adams does a commendable job articulating Margaret’s side of this scandalous tale of fraud, similarly to how I felt about The Momument’s Men, another recent art history movie, Big Eyes’ standard, predictable narrative left me walking out of the theater feeling a bit underwhelmed. And in this age of $10-20 movie tickets, I have a hard time saying this film is worth more than a Redbox rental.-JL