- RatedPG13 /GenreBiography, Drama
The eyes may be the windows to the soul, but they wind up revealing far too little in 'Big Eyes', an unpersuasive, paint-by-numbers account of the fraud perpetrated by Walter Keane, who succeeded in fooling the public and amassing a fortune by passing off his wife Margaret’s paintings as his own.
Despite Amy Adams’ affecting performance as an artist and 1950s/1960s housewife complicit in her own captivity, this relatively straightforward dramatic outing for Tim Burton is too broadly conceived to penetrate the mystery at the heart of the Keanes’ unhappy marriage — the depiction of which is dominated by an outlandish, ogre-like turn from Christoph Waltz that increasingly seems to hold the movie hostage.
Although this independent production qualifies as a change of pace for Burton following the elaborate live-action fantasy worlds he has inhabited of late, it’s plain to see what might have personally drawn him to the story of a shy, stifled artist whose creations captivated many with their eccentric fusion of the tender and the grotesque.
And while there may be no overtly supernatural trappings in evidence, Burton, reteaming with his 'Ed Wood' writing duo of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski ('The People vs Larry Flynt', 'Man on the Moon'), has effectively rendered the story as a sort of 20th-century fairytale, about a sweet damsel in distress locked away by an evil enchanter who somehow manages to keep her and the outside world under his spell for more than a decade.
Reinforcing the storybook feel, the events are narrated by a side character, real-life San Francisco Examiner columnist Dick Nolan (Danny Huston), who offers pithy but clunky observations about the overweening sexism of the era and the limited options available to a single mother and divorcee like Margaret Doris Hawkins Ulbrich (a blonde-wigged Adams).
That presumably explains why she seems so quiveringly fragile when we first meet her in Northern California in 1958, frantically packing her things and, along with her young daughter, Jane (Delaney Raye), leaving her never-seen first husband.
With little money and no real plan, Margaret moves with Jane to San Francisco, setting up shop at an outdoor art fair and displaying her signature paintings of forlorn-looking children with abnormally large, soulful peepers.
These in turn catch the eye of the smooth-talking Walter Keane (Waltz), a successful real-estate man who has made the pursuit of art his life’s passion, in a manner of speaking.
Sweeping the naive Margaret off her feet with his intoxicating tales of having lived and painted in Paris, where he studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and drew inspiration for his many Montmartre street scenes, Walter seems too good to be true – partly because he is a known womaniser, as Margaret’s only friend (Krysten Ritter) can attest, but also because Walter’s wolfish, trust-me grin is a clear tipoff.
But Margaret is anxious for a better life, desperate to keep custody of Jane and genuinely smitten with Walter, so she swiftly accepts his proposal of marriage.
Not long after a blissful Hawaii wedding and honeymoon, Walter finds that people are gravitating toward Margaret’s paintings of big-eyed waifs, and he begins openly claiming credit for them, since Margaret has signed them with her new married name, “Keane”.
In the film’s pivotal stretch, Margaret learns the full extent of her husband’s fabrications, but finds herself too shocked, betrayed and frightened to reveal the paintings’ true authorship.
It’s also understandable why the lie might become harder to expose as her work becomes a cultural phenomenon, and Walter finds greater fame.
The problem is that on some level, despite this carefully orchestrated flurry of activity, 'Big Eyes' shifts uncertainly between exaggerated comedy and tense domestic drama (and propelled both ways by Danny Elfman’s churning score). The film skips along on the surface, never really going deeper into the complex family situations.
Adams, although she was saddled with unimaginative dialogue and hemmed in by the essentially passive nature of her role, managed to supply the film with a compelling centre, showing Margaret’s tireless painting to be at once a concession to Walter’s demands, a vital creative outlet and an eloquent act of defiance.
A certain hamminess is built into Walter's role, but Waltz never vanishes into it; his self-amused grin and inimitable vocal and verbal delivery make it virtually impossible to see the character for the character actor.
In its smartest touch, the film makes time for the voices of various art-world tastemakers — namely, a gallery curator (Jason Schwartzman) and The New York Times art critic John Canaday (a delightful Terence Stamp) — who form a sort of dryly funny Greek chorus, reacting with unconcealed horror to the massive success of the Keane paintings.
Despite its relatively realistic setting and restrained use of visual effects, Burton’s 17th feature as a director is as meticulously designed as one would expect.
'Big Eyes' opens 29 January 2015