Review: Big Eyes
Beginning in the late 50s, this is the true story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) the naïve, sweet-natured painter who is swept off her feet by Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), an artist in his own right. They marry soon and Walter becomes a big success as the creator of artworks focussing on female figures with enlarged eyes. The problem? Walter is a fraud and is making money off of Margaret’s work. Eventually, Margaret uncovers that Walter’s own artistic talents are far lesser than he has claimed. But nonetheless Margaret/Walter’s ‘Big Eyes’ paintings cause a sensation. Serious art critics (including a snooty, humourless Terence Stamp) scoff, but the art sells like hot cakes and is able to be put on postcards, posters, etc. At first Margaret goes along with the charade, as she loves her husband and at that point in time, he reasons that a female artist simply wouldn’t sell. He’s also a natural self-promoter, something the more reticent Margaret isn’t nearly as proficient in. However, she starts to tire of the lie, especially as she wants to create something that she can claim as her own and get recognition for it. Walter is having none of that, leading to trouble that eventually sees the duo in court having to prove their artistic abilities. Jason Schwartzmann appears periodically as a snooty modern art dealer who rolls his eyes at Walter/Margaret’s work, whilst Jon Polito plays a club owner whom Walter tries to get to show his art in his club, James Saito plays a bemused judge, and Danny Huston plays a writer who interviews Walter and Margaret.
Scripted by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (co-writers of “Ed Wood”, “The People vs. Larry Flynt”, and the rather scary Stephen King adaptation “1408”), this 2015 ‘true story’ is a rare straight drama from director Tim Burton (“Batman”, “Beetlejuice”, “Mars Attacks!”, “Sleepy Hollow”). The artistic subject matter and oddball paintings obviously struck a chord with him, and it’s a respectable, if slightly lightweight effort (“Ed Wood” was a true story too, but that was a far from traditional or clichéd biopic). Although she continues to show an inability to maintain an accent, Amy Adams is otherwise completely wonderful and winning (Keane was born in Nashville, so perhaps Adams was aiming for that, but it’s so faint and intermittent it just seems odd). She nails the character’s initial naivety and lack of self-confidence, but also Margaret’s eventual frustration and defiance. Due to Adams’ innate likeability you have absolutely no problem getting on this woman’s side from the very first moment to the last. Accent consistency or not, she’s a really terrific actress and a charismatic star, and she’s perfect for a film set in a (slightly stylised) period setting of the late 50s. I don’t know what it is about Adams that makes her such a good fit for period stories, but whether it’s this, “Doubt”, or even playing Amelia Earhart in “Night at the Museum 2” she’s completely convincing.
Solid, but less convincing is a curiously cast Christoph Waltz as Keane’s slick, charming charlatan husband Walter Keane. The Austrian-born actor isn’t remotely convincing as the Nebraska-born Keane, and it may prove too difficult for some to therefore accept him in the part. However, if you can forget the accent, Waltz is still very fine, and he makes for a perfect con artist of otherwise modest (at best) talent. I think Burton goes a little too far in painting him as a monster towards the end with one regrettable scene involving a bit of arson. However, for the rest of the film he gets this guy’s pathetic desperation, outward charm, and admittedly clever deceitful thinking. Aside from perhaps that one scene, he’s not an evil man, he’s too pathetic to be considered evil, really. He’s pitiful, and his performance in the courtroom (if the film is accurate) almost makes you want to cover your eyes, it’s embarrassingly sad. Yes, in a lot of ways this is Christoph Waltz doing his Christoph Waltz schtick, and one day that’s gonna get tiresome, but for now it’s not, and he adds a layer of sadness or a pathetic quality as well (not to mention some intentional humour). I probably would’ve cast an American in the part (I’ve heard Thomas Haden Church was considered, and he would’ve been interesting), but outside of the accent there is nothing wrong with Waltz here. In fact, I’d really like to see Burton work with Adams and Waltz again in future projects. In smaller roles, Jon Polito is in fine form (and wearing a beret!), and Terence Stamp couldn’t be more perfectly cast as an utterly humourless art critic who sees little of merit in Keane’s work. Unfortunately, Jason Schwartzmann and particularly the very fine Danny Huston are given scant screen time and not much depth to their characters. I definitely would’ve liked to have seen more of them in the film. Very funny cameo by ‘Joan Crawford’ as well.
The story itself was actually fresh to me in regards to the specific real-life case, though some of it is as old as the hills, from a narrative perspective. I can see why Burton found it appealing, as it’s a film about an artist with a rather unique vision. However, Burton doesn’t exactly put his own stamp on it. Anyone could’ve directed this on the evidence we see on screen. I was never bored by it, and I was occasionally surprised by the twists and turns, but for the most part it wasn’t anything terribly Earth-shattering.
A solid film but not as enjoyable as you might expect, nor is it terribly distinctly Burton-esque outside of subject matter. It’s worth seeing, but somewhat slight at the end of the day. There’s fine work by Christoph Waltz, and especially Amy Adams, but more screen time for supporting players might’ve helped make it memorable. You’ll enjoy it, but be a bit frustrated by it too, I think because it could’ve been a lot better.