A film review by Craig J. Koban January 30, 2015

BIG EYES j
j
½  

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.  

It’s a 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.  

 

 

BIG 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 setbacks. 

Everything 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 longer.  

BIG 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. 

Burton 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 film altogether. 

BIG 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. 

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