Rating: 6.5 out of 10
Amy Adams as Margaret Keane
Christoph Waltz as Walter Keane
Krysten Ritter as DeeAnn
Jason Schwartzman as Ruben
Danny Huston as Dick Nolan
Terence Stamp as John Canaday
Elisabetta Fantone as Marta
Madeleine Arthur as Older Jane
Jon Polito as Enrico Banducci
Directed by Tim Burton
Directed by Tim Burton
In the late ‘50s, California painters Walter and Margaret Keane (Christoph Waltz, Amy Adams) meet and fall in love, but Margaret is clearly the one with the talent as her paintings of little girls with large saucer eyes immediately captures the attention of anyone who sees them. Seeing an opportunity, Walter takes full credit for the paintings as they become a worldwide sensation, much to the chagrin of the art world.
There’s quite a lot to admire about Tim Burton’s return to smaller and more intimate storytelling that doesn’t involve dark fantasy or magic or any of his fallback tropes. Just the fact that he’s reuniting with the writers of Ed Wood, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, gives one hope this won’t be another overblown CG affair from the once visionary filmmaker who seems to have lost sight of the meaning of art. What a better way to get back to his roots than to look at the origins of the type of popular art that started the trend of posters and prints being just as worthy of hanging on one’s walls as pricier paintings?
Despite being an intriguing look at art fraud, the story is told in an incredibly boring linear fashion through a series of sequences that shows how Amy Adams’ Margaret moves to California with her young daughter to escape an abusive marriage. There, she meets “street artist” Walter Keane and they’re quickly married, after which he gets the idea of displaying their art for sale in a swanky jazz club. People at the club are clearly more interested in her gloomy portraits than his dull Parisian street scenes. One slip of the tongue and a fight with the owner later gets Keane into the local gossip page, who credit him for Margaret’s art as well as his own. Seeing a chance to make money, Walter doesn’t deny his involvement and starts to enjoy the success and fame of being a new art discovery while Margaret remains locked up in her art studio cranking out more of the popular paintings.
The Keanes’ story is an interesting one, especially the thought of Margaret being so repressed that she keeps quiet while her husband takes all her glory, keeping that secret for over a decade. One can clearly see that working with new actors rather than his old standbys Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter gives Burton a new energy, but the film is terribly unbalanced with Christoph Waltz being given so much more screen time compared to Adams without delivering nearly as worthy a performance. Waltz is essentially doing his usual thing, grinning maniacally and turning on the charm with a character that literally could have been played by so many other actors with far more depth than he’s able to bring. It’s fun to watch, to a point, but he’s just doing the same thing we’ve seen him do countless times before.
By comparison, Adams gives a soulful performance as Margaret, although like her character, any attempt at subtlety in Adams’ performance tends to be overrun by Waltz’s incessant scenery chewing. At least the film has some saving graces in the smaller supporting roles by Krysten Ritter (as Margaret’s friend) and Jason Schwartzman (as a snobby art gallery owner), acting as a Greek chorus to Walter Keane’s rise to fame as well as offering some fun moments.
Things slowly start to unwind as Margaret decides to stand up for herself and questions Walter’s ability to paint at all. By that point, he’s dug a hole so deep for himself that he truly believes he’s painted all of the work. Once Margaret goes public that she painted the “big eye” paintings, we arrive at the inevitable last act, which feels more like The People vs. Larry Flynt (also written by Alexander and Karaszewski), as Walter chooses to defend himself, offering for some lighter courtroom humor that makes up for some of the film’s dryer moments from earlier.
It’s easy to realize this would have been an almost unwatchable film in the hands of another director, and Burton and his crew bring their vast experience to make more out of a fairly bland story without resorting to the overblown visuals that have been the benchmark of recent Burton films.
The Bottom Line:
Tim Burton’s attempt at getting back to the smaller reality-based films of Ed Wood may give one higher hopes for Big Eyes, but it fails to convey the material in a particularly creative or inventive way with Waltz’s constant scenery-chewing detracting from any insight the story tries to offer.