Let’s be honest: the Tim Burton of the 2000s and beyond is a much different director than the goth weirdo we all fell in love with from the days of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Ed Wood. Artists have to eat, but the Tim Burton of the last ten years has been mostly using his visual acuity to bring big-budget hackwork to the screen, with most of it starring Johnny Depp.
A script about real people — Margaret and Walter Keane, the couple behind the kitschy sixties paintings of children with “big eyes,” proto-Precious Moments waifs in a cruel world — seems like a chance for Burton to put his toys away and tell an interesting story about art, appropriation, money, and credit. The rough outline of Margaret Keane’s life (played ably by Amy Adams) lends itself to lush period drama. A woman on the run from a broken marriage, Margaret has one friend (Krysten Ritter, seeming like Chloe from the late, great Don’t Trust the B in period-wear) and a moony-eyed daughter. She reinvents herself in late 1950s San Francisco, where she meets Walter Keane, her husband-to-be, when she is selling her paintings at an outdoor market.
Our first introduction to Walter shows that he’s a charmer and a hustler. Dressed up like Picasso, he’s trying to sell his Parisian paintings, and immediately lights on Margaret and tells her that she’s underselling herself. Two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz bites into Walter like a Christmas ham, using his Euro-pudding accent and general charm in order to embody an abusive, domineering man.
It’s fascinating to see how Walter — a frustrated, hack artist — took credit for Margaret’s paintings, while also entwining his life with hers through marriage. We can see the wheels turning in Walter’s head as lies build upon lies, and besides, “nobody buys lady art.” Burton has a good eye regarding the way in which Walter was a showman and Margaret ends up the princess locked away in the tower, stuck painting and painting her odd works as Lana Del Rey sighs with great subtlety on the soundtrack, “With your big eyes/ And your big lies.”
The story of Walter and Margaret Keane is just incredibly odd, and raises a lot of questions regarding art, credit, and the lies that keep a marriage going. Big Eyes, however, mostly glides past these real issues in favor of some feminist lip service and some cool mid-century modern architecture that’s perfect for lighting ominously. The “big eyes” paintings were regarded as kitsch — Terence Stamp has a funny, small role as the New York Times art critic constantly charged with ranting against these works — but Walter was able to give them cachet as he opened the “Keane Gallery” and made them available as ten-dollar paintings.
Burton is interested in the outsider artist weirdness of it all, and he’s made a good looking film that evokes San Francisco in the hazy light of nostalgia, but the emptiness within comes from the shallow constraints of the biopic. Perhaps Margaret was as recessive as she’s portrayed; it’s entirely feasible. But in order to care about the movie, to hope she’d find something like peace, there needed to be more anger in the filmmaking. Frankly, this feels like a film that a female director would have a better handle on — the hazy definitions between a husband and wife and what people think in a sexist world, the way that women’s art is undervalued and underappreciated.
Did Margaret Keane have a sense of humor? Was there anything that she was passionate about? Big Eyes just makes her a princess locked in a tower, a one-woman sweatshop of kitsch paintings, as Waltz basically performs “Der Humpnik” with a manic smile.
Big Eyes may be the best live-action Tim Burton of the 2000s, but that’s faint praise, considering he’s been on one of the most precipitous downslides where a formerly visionary director goes for the money. Big Eyes shows a burgeoning interest for Burton in the small and human, the origin stories of hardworking, misunderstood artists (like 2000s-era Burton?) and perhaps that’s a good first step for him after years of disappointing films. There’s a really good movie somewhere in the strange story of Margaret Keane, and, sadly for our Susan Lucci-of-the-Oscars Amy Adams’ efforts, Big Eyes is not that film. But it’s not offensive, at the very least.
Big Eyes is out Christmas Day in wide release.