2014, R, 105 mins.
2014, R, 105 mins.
Amy Adams as Margaret Keane / Christoph Waltz as Walter Keane / Krysten Ritter as DeeAnn / Danny Huston as Dick Nolan / Jason Schwartzman as Ruben / Terence Stamp as John Canaday
Directed by Tim Burton / Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski
BIG EYES is a refreshingly un-Tim Burtony film and a wonderful change of pace for his typically odd and kooky stylistic idiosyncrasies.
That’s a good thing.
BIG EYES is also – as far as fact-based period dramas go – a fairly paint-by-numbers affair that never really elevates itself above the level of a TV-movie-of-the-week.
That’s a bad thing.
shame, because Burton’s inherent passion for the material comes through,
not to mention that BIG EYES represents a re-teaming of him with his ED
WOOD scribes Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewksi.
Yet, for all the good will and noble intentions that Burton brings
to the table – alongside a terrific and soulful lead performance by Amy
Adams – BIG EYES feels it never digs deep into its themes and story as
much as it thinks it does.
The story behind the film is utterly fascinating, though, as a portrait of the art world of yesteryear, but it's also an involving investigation into the larger issues of male dominance in an industry at the time that subverted and ignored women. BIG EYES concerns the marriage and artistic life of Margaret Keane, whose paintings in the 1950’s and 60’s featuring young female subjects with oversized eyes became an art and media sensation. Regrettably, Margaret never received credit during the height of her work’s popularity…as every single piece she made was credited to her husband Walter, who spin-doctored multiple falsehoods in the public eye, citing himself as the main driving creative force behind the “big eyes” paintings. Of course, this led to ample strains in an already strained marriage, which culminated in Margaret filing for divorce and then suing her hustler husband and trying to prove in a court of law that she was, in fact, the real mastermind behind the paintings.
EYES begins in the late 1950’s by introducing us to Margaret Ulbrich (a
reliably rock steady Amy Adams) as she packs her suitcase and takes her
only daughter away from a failed marriage.
She moves to San Francisco to make a new life, and during her
initial setbacks while acclimatizing herself to her new surroundings she has a
chance meeting with fellow painter Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), who
wins over Margaret with his limitless confidence and easygoing charm.
Walter takes an immediate liking to her “big eyes” paintings
– not to mention having an intense attraction to her as well – and the two
find themselves dating and married in an unsettlingly short period of
time. Things seem relatively
happy and well adjusted for the couple, despite their artistic career
changes – for the better and for the worse – when Walter (a salesman
with a true enterprising spirit) convinces a local nightclub owner to
place some of Margaret’s paintings on his walls alongside his own works.
Her paintings begin to attract attention and sales, whereas
Walter's don’t, which leads to him taking full credit for her work (Margaret
signed all of her paintings with her new last name only, which made it
conveniently easy for Walter to swoop in and call them his own).
At first, Margaret is rightfully hurt by her husband’s blatant
lies, but he convinces her that it’s for the greater financial good,
seeing as paintings by women don’t get the respect and adulation that
ones by male contemporaries receive. Begrudgingly,
Margaret agrees to join Walter on the long-term con, but when her
paintings become increasingly well received and a highly lucrative cash
cow for the family, Margaret begins to have doubts about whether she can
ethically continue to partake in her husband’s duplicitous charade any
EYES is compelling largely because of the series of questions it poses at
viewers regarding Margaret’s situation.
Not only does the film touch on the whole nature of what makes art
popular – or art at all – but it also deals with themes of what the
whole notion of creating something means to the artists and how that
deeply personal bond between the work and its creator can be so
easily manipulated by unwanted outside forces.
There’s also the whole damning issue of commerce intersecting
with art as well (which indisputably seems tied to the movie industry as a
whole too); Walter’s manipulative scheme to sell his wife’s paintings
by taking credit is a shameful reflection of the times they lived in. It could easily be argued that paintings by female artists of
the era did not get the same level of widespread critical and popular
admiration as ones by men. Walter
selling Margaret’s paintings as his own to make a buck is a chilling
portal back into the past showing the way women found themselves in
submissive relationships in male dominated fields.
BIG EYES is always enthralling as a chronicle of one woman’s
struggles to gain legitimacy in her vocation and emancipation from the
domineering man in her life.
is so lucky to have Amy Adams spearheading the rallying cause of this
film. As she has demonstrated
time and time again in past roles, Adams has a singular talent for
quietly immersing herself in characters with a low key and
understated tact that rarely draws attention to itself.
She finds just the right subtle notes playing Margaret as a woman
that’s both proud and headstrong, but also emotionally vulnerably and riddled with nagging doubts. Adams
is so grounded and sincere in her work that it’s unfortunately
contrasted by Waltz’s grotesquely exaggerated and hyperactive performance
as her lecherous husband. Waltz is one of our most powerful of screen actors, but the over-the-top madness that he routinely engages in as Walter sort of
betrays the dramatically authentic work by his co-star.
As BIG EYES progresses Waltz’s chaotic camera mugging theatrics
grows by the minute, which leaves Walter feeling more like a one-note
cartoon villain than a fully realized and multi-layered protagonist. As the film culminates to its unavoidable courtroom battle
between husband and wife, Waltz seems like he’s inhabiting a whole other
EYES, to be fair, looks exquisite, but not in the traditional dark and
macabre manner that we typically associate with Burton.
Filmed in lush and vibrant pastel colors and a nice eye for natural
period décor, Burton’s desire here to move outside of his
element is imminently commendable (granted, there’s one scene that’s
pure Burton-esque whimsy as Margaret hallucinates that all of the
other patrons at a local grocery store have the same oversized and
exaggerated eyes as the subjects in her paintings).
Overall, BIG EYES isn't filmed with much ostentatious and overwrought
style, which allows our immersion into the helpless plight of Margaret
that much more. Coming off a
series of dour disappointments like the recent DARK
SHADOWS and ALICE IN
WONDERLAND, it's sure invigorating to see Burton flex his
directorial muscles beyond his comfort zone.
Still, BIG EYES feels disappointingly generic and conventional as far as biopics go. It hits all of the conventional and predictable beats that one comes to expect from these types of genre pictures. Burton crafts a handsome looking throwback film and gets a truly wonderful performance from Adams (she invests in her role perhaps more so than the fairly prosaic script itself). Again, you can tell that Burton loves this subject and finds it deeply personal (he’s both an artist and collector, not to mention that he’s an admitted fan of Margaret Keane’s work), but beyond being a sometimes rousing film featuring Margaret’s personal deliverance from her scumbag husband, BIG EYES never really penetrates the fine and troubling minutia of the Keane marriage and domestic war. The film feels like it was created on a silver screen canvas with broad dramatic brush strokes. Considering the uphill battle that Margeret Keane went though in life, she kind of deserves better that this mundane film.