Silver Screen: Big Eyes ***
The story of Margaret and Walter Keane is the stranger-than-fiction stuff of a fascinating biography. Art-world castoff Walter dreamed of being a great artist, and the canny self-promoter would let nothing stop him, not even a total lack of ability. When his wallflower wife’s improbably popular portraits of wide-eyed moppets struck a nerve with the public, Walter parlayed a minor trend into a media empire that changed the relationship between pop art and commerce— an astonishing success all constructed around a fundamental lie.
It’s a great story, but that doesn’t necessarily make it fodder for a great movie. Movies about writers and painters invariably smack headlong into a formidable obstacle, namely how to dramatize a long, slow, solitary process. Big Eyes presents an even greater challenge: How do you dramatize someone not painting?
Kudos to director Tim Burton for trying. After a decade or so of cranking out adaptations of pre-existing properties almost too obviously suited to his neo-gothic style (Dark Shadows, Alice in Wonderland, Sweeney Todd, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Burton taking on Big Eyes is quietly audacious. Perhaps the director once hailed as a wunderkind, now maligned as a purveyor of pandering kitsch, feels some kinship toward artist Margaret, whose work was dismissed as commercial pap despite its broad appeal. Burton only brushes up against big questions about artistic merit, the role of the critic, and aesthetic populism, where the truly interesting connections between himself and Margaret Keane exist. It’s a shame, as the resulting film is intriguing without really resonating. It’s a character study that remains oddly impersonal.
Margaret (Amy Adams) is a resourceful former housewife newly liberated as a divorcée. Unfortunately for her, she’s a few years ahead of the women’s movement, and her status as a single mother in 1950s America is a lowly one, so much so that her ex-husband has the ability to seize custody of her daughter Jane (played by Delaney Raye and later as a young woman by Madeleine Arthur). Her apparent salvation arrives in Walter (Christoph Waltz), a real-estate agent who claims to be a fellow struggling artist. Margaret’s friend DeeAnn (Krysten Ritter) warns her that Walter is a smooth-talker who’s bedded half the amateur art scene, but Margaret marries him anyway and forms what she anticipates will be an artistic partnership.
Walter’s first stroke of inspiration, and the first of the story’s many intersections with titans of pop culture, comes when he decides to bypass the gallery world and rent out the wall space of San Francisco’s now-legendary Hungry i nightclub to display their work. The gambit generates attention from gossip columnist Dick Nolan (Danny Huston), who also serves as the movie’s superfluous narrator. The resulting publicity doesn’t help move any of Walter’s generic, blotchy Parisian streetscapes, but Margaret’s portraits of children with outsized peepers begin to sell. In a moment of overwrought salesmanship, Walter takes credit for the big-eyes paintings, which lays the foundation of a lie that will come to define his life and career.
Walter convinces Margaret it’s in their mutual interest for him to be perceived as the family’s star painter. He eventually starts his own gallery, then helps popularize the widespread distribution of prints, posters, and postcards of the work, which become so ubiquitous that Margaret sees her creations peering back at her from grocery-store aisles. When Margaret fights for credit as the truly talented Keane, celebrity-obsessed Walter goes over the edge, and the two are pitted in a bizarre legal battle that encompasses Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Hawaiian court system, and the practical application of the Perry Mason TV show.
This is fascinating stuff, but it’s just as compelling to read or hear about as it is to see theatrically reenacted. The story of the Keane family empire is better suited to a documentary that could follow the fascinating tangents and asides— Joan Crawford! Andy Warhol! The 1964 World’s Fair!— rather than adhering to a traditional biopic format.
Burton’s last collaboration with Big Eyes’ screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski was the brilliant Ed Wood, another portrait of a purveyor of so-called junk culture. But Ed Wood drew upon the frenzied enthusiasm of its unflappable subject; Wood might be the worst filmmaker ever to live, but he did make films, and with great— if misguided— passion. It’s a stark contrast between Wood and Walter Keane, the latter of whom has literally nothing to offer but zeal. Big Eyes also lacks Ed Wood’s cadre of captivating supporting players like Béla Lugosi, Tor Johnson, the Amazing Criswell, and Vampira, and the script is bereft of the earlier film’s quotable zingers. Jason Schwartzman and Terence Stamp provide some spark as a gallery owner and art critic, respectively, both in the anti-Keane camp, but their characters feel more representative of a broader attitude rather than individuated.
Big Eyes’ attempt at correcting the historical record from a feminist perspective is admirable, but the camera’s attention keeps wanting to stray to Walter. He may be a fraud, but his extravagant lies sizzle on camera in a way that Margaret’s quiet dedication cannot. First he steals her paintings, then he tries to steal her movie, which confounds Big Eyes’ entire thesis.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.