Big Eyes

Amy Adams doesn't want to part with this prop, although Christoph Waltz reassures her.

Amy Adams doesn’t want to part with this prop, although Christoph Waltz reassures her.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp, Jon Polito, Elizabeth Fantone, James Saito, Guido Furlani, Delaney Raye, Madeline Arthur, Emily Bruhn, Alan MacFarlane, Tony Alcantar, Jaden Alexander, Andrew Airlie, Matthew Kevin Anderson, Stephanie Bennett, Andrea Bucko. Directed by Tim Burton

Art is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. The big-eyed waifs painted by Keane were, in the 1950s and 1960s, highly sought-after. Prints and posters hung in many homes and the originals were highly sought-after by collectors. Walter Keane was one of the first to commercialize art in many ways, leading the way for guys like Andy Warhol and Robert Wyland. There are those who would sniff that Keane’s vision was more kitsch than art and doesn’t hold up over the years. But Keane held a secret much deeper than that.

Margaret Ulbrich (Adams) has fled an abusive marriage, taking her daughter Jane (Raye) to San Francisco where her friend DeeAnn (Ritter) is overjoyed to see her out on her own. Margaret loves to paint but she’s forced to take a mundane job to support her daughter, but still continues to paint and sells her art in the park on weekends. There she meets Walter Keane (Waltz), a charming and outgoing man who claims he once studied to paint in Paris. He’s a born salesman and at the moment he’s selling himself. Margaret, who knows that a divorcee with a daughter isn’t going to be attracting a lot of romantic attention, marries Walter despite DeeAnn’s misgivings.

Soon Margaret starts painting a series of sad children with oversized eyes. Walter is painting his landscapes and both are not really selling much of anything. Walter manages to wrangle Enrico Banducci (Polito), the owner of one of the city’s iconic jazz clubs, to hang some of the artwork in the club where Walter can ostensibly sell it, but the place the art gets hung – a corridor leading to the bathrooms – isn’t exactly the place where people look for artwork. However after a staged row gets more customers into the club to see the fireworks between Banducci and Walter some attention gets paid to the art.

But not Walter’s art – Margaret’s. Soon her artwork begins selling like hotcakes and in a moment of perhaps panic but more likely pride, Walter claims that he is the artist that painted the waifs. Soon, there is huge demand for these paintings and Walter opens up a gallery. When people start stealing posters and postcards, he begins charging for them. Before long, the waifs are an international phenomenon.

For Margaret, success is bittersweet. The money is nice and the recognition is terrific, but nobody is recognizing her. It’s Walter reaping the success, Walter getting the recognition. Even a now-grown Jane (Arthur) recognizes that her mother is being screwed. Walter’s increasingly bizarre behavior, brought on by drinking, becomes too much. Margaret leaves and takes Jane with her to Hawaii, but Walter needs her paintings to fuel his income. The arrangement seems to work but it becomes clear that keeping the secret is a terrible burden for Margaret. When the truth comes out, where will the chips end up?

Burton has always been the kind of director whose films you can tell instantly are his, even if you don’t know what you’re seeing. He outdoes himself here – not so much with the semi-Gothic look of some of his movies, not even in his fascination with kitsch which is certainly present here, but in his use of color. Every shot is like a painting, with the colors melding together in not only the set design and the costumes but even down to the lighting. Burton’s eye is exquisite.

The story is based on Margaret’s memoirs and thus Walter is given short shrift in many ways. The point of view is strictly Margaret’s and while some of Walter’s family have complained that the film portrayed him as a talentless hack and even that he taught Margaret how to draw the waifs (which he was unable to reproduce in court during the libel trial that is depicted at the end of this film), all I can say is that you don’t go to the movies to seek the truth, merely an aspect of it, a perspective on it. And who’s to say what the truth is? There’s Margaret’s story, Walter’s story and somewhere in between is the reality of what actually happened.

Adams is one of my favorite actresses and she gives a solid though unspectacular performance as Margaret. Margaret is the mousy submissive 50s housewife through much of the movie and that can impede a performance if one is constantly looking down at the floor miserably, but Adams does eventually give Margaret some spunk which shows through in different often unsettling ways. Waltz, who I almost always enjoy, is a bit miscast here; while he has the charisma and charm to pull that aspect of Walter off, sometimes he’s so overpowering that the movie tilts a bit in the wrong direction. Less would have been more in this case. Also, both have trouble maintaining their accents as Waltz’ Austrian accent sometimes slips out and Adams’ Tennessee accent sometimes slips away. A bit more consistency would have been nice.

Like Ed Wood (whose writers co-wrote this film), Burton shows an unusual sympathy for those outside the system, those relegated to freak show status. The Keanes operated outside the normal boundaries of the art world back then, as represented by a snooty art critic (Stamp) and a snobby gallery owner (Schwartzman) and more or less clawed their way to the top. There is no doubt that Walter was an excellent promoter and while his actions may have been reprehensible, once in awhile you get a glimpse of the insecurities within that may well have fueled his behavior and Big Eyes succeeds very well there. This isn’t Burton’s best work, but it is his best in quite awhile.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeously shot. Champions the outsider once again. Captures the kitsch of the era nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally an accent drops. Waltz is unusually out-of-step.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of harsh language and the themes can be pretty adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Margaret Keane can be seen reading a book on a park bench in the scene when Walter and Margaret are painting in front of the Palace of Fine Arts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ed Wood
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Exodus: Gods and Kings

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