Amy Adams & Christoph Waltz shine in quirky true retro-art tale
Starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz
Directed by Tim Burton
Appropriately enough, the opening shot of Big Eyes is a big eye—and a tear.
For this is a sad tale—sort of. Based on the true story of Margaret Keane, the artist whose paintings of children with big, sorrowful eyes became a kitschy art sensation in the 1960s, it stars Amy Adams as Margaret and Christoph Waltz as her husband, Walter.
The “sad” part of the story is that Walter took full credit for Margaret’s paintings, keeping his wife and her talent hidden in his shadow for almost ten years.
“People don’t buy lady art,” Walter tells Margaret, convincing her that “they” would benefit more if he becomes known as the creator of the wistful-looking, saucer-eyed waifs on the canvasses—and above the signature that read simply “KEANE.”
Amy Adams, whose career has spanned a spectrum of widely diverse roles (American Hustle, The Muppets, Her, The Master), shines with a wounded, subdued glow as Margaret, making us understand both the weakness that would let her character remain a victim of Walter’s bullying, as well as the strength it took for her to finally leave him—and then, 20 years later, sue him to prove her rightful claim to the paintings.
Waltz, the German-Austrian actor who became known to American audiences in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, brings a manic, electrified energy to Walter, depicted him as a trifecta of showy self-promotion, talentless hackery and scary domination.
Big Eyes might seem an odd, highly conventional choice for director Tim Burton, best known for the eccentric, wildly imaginative look, feel and subject matter of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and The Nightmare Before Christmas. But there are quirks a-plenty in the weird true story itself, and Burton’s signature touches abound, especially in the movie’s bight, day-glow colors; his attention to far-out, decade-spanning period details; and the casting of some fine character actors in supporting roles, including Terence Stamp (as a snooty New York Times art critic), Danny Huston (a tabloid reporter who serves as the movie’s narrator), Krysten Ritter from TV’s Breaking Bad (as Margaret’s best friend), Jason Schwartzman (an art gallery snob) and Joe Polito (a nightclub owner), all of whom provide their own dry, dark-comic edges to the central melodrama.
The movie culminates in a recreation of the 1986 trail, a showdown in which a judge orders Margaret and Walter into an easel-versus-easel contest for the jury to determine who was the real artist of the “big eye” paintings.
Burton’s movie brings up several issues: the subjugation of women in the 1950s and ’60s, intellectual property theft and the role of media and publicity in creating fads, movements and celebrity. But mostly it’s a wacky history lesson about a real-life woman who finally set the record straight, told by a director who loves a kitschy underdog tale, with two lead actors who put their own colorful brushstrokes on a zesty, little-known story. Big Eyes may not become a big breakout hit, but it’s certainly a big, bright surprise.
—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine