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Big Eyes

D: Tim Burton / 106m

Cast: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter, Jon Polito, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp, Delaney Raye, Madeleine Arthur

In 1958, Margaret Ulbrich (Adams) leaves her husband and moves to San Francisco with her nine year old daughter, Jane (Raye). She is an artist, and paints portraits of young children with enlarged eyes; her work is original but not successful. She has a stand at a street market for artists, and it’s there that she meets fellow artist Walter Keane (Waltz). Walter paints street scenes set in Paris but is as unsuccessful as she is. They begin seeing each other and Margaret discovers that Walter is actually a realtor and not a full-time artist. When Margaret’s ex-husband tries to sue for custody of Jane by arguing that Margaret is unable to support her properly, Walter suggests they get married. Grateful, but already falling in love with him, Margaret agrees.

With Margaret still painting her waifs (as she calls them) and Walter trying to sell his own paintings, neither is making any headway until Walter hits on the idea of renting some wall space at a jazz club owned by Enrico Banducci (Polito). When a woman shows an interest in one of Margaret’s paintings instead of one of his own, Walter accepts an offer for it. A fight with Banducci over being situated by the toilets makes the papers and leads to increased demand for Margaret’s waifs. Soon, sales are soaring, but Walter takes credit for Margaret’s work, telling her “lady art” doesn’t sell and that people already think he painted the waifs anyway (because he’s not tried to clarify matters).

Margaret goes along with Walter’s fraudulent selling of her paintings, and they become richer and richer, eventually opening their own gallery. When sales slow, Walter hits on the idea of mass printing the paintings as posters, and their fortune increases even more. But Margaret becomes increasingly uneasy about the deception she’s a part of, and the ease with which Walter seems able to hoodwink everyone. Even when she changes her style and paints new pieces, Walter insists she carry on painting the waifs, but with the proviso that she never tells anyone that he’s not the artist; even Jane isn’t to know. Again, she goes along with Walter’s wishes.

In 1964, an altercation with a drunken Walter results in Margaret leaving him and taking Jane (now played by Arthur) to Hawaii. She begins to rebuild her life, and becomes a Jehovah’s Witness. Through their teachings she reviews her life with Walter and determines to finally tell the truth about her paintings and Walter’s role in their success. She reveals everything on a radio show, and when Walter finds out he opts to hit back via the press, arguing that Margaret is of unsound mind. Margaret sues him for slander and takes him to court, where Walter ends up having to defend himself. At stake is credit once and for all for her artwork.

Big Eyes - scene

An odd combination of drama and low-key whimsy, Big Eyes takes the true story of Margaret and Walter Keane and their rapid rise to fame and fortune on the back of her talent for painting and his talent for promotion, and makes it a largely enjoyable – if occasionally unbelievable – tale of manipulation and deceit. Making his most straightforward movie yet, Burton dials back on his usual fantastical approach – except for one fantasy sequence set in a supermarket – and allows the script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski to unfold at a deliberately sedate pace that keeps the audience involved but proves repetitive in terms of how often Walter intimidates or bullies Margaret into continuing to paint her waifs.

It’s a problem the movie never properly overcomes. Margaret acts as an accomplice for too long for it to be credible, and if it wasn’t for the fact that this is a true story, her reticence and complicity would appear too unlikely for comfort. As it is, the script focuses instead on Walter’s gift for self-betterment, and shows just how easy it was for him to popularise Margaret’s work. Trapped in a relationship that she feels there’s no way out from, it’s not until she discovers that Walter can’t paint at all that she begins to find her footing, and her empowerment drives the movie’s last half hour.

It also leads to one of the most bizarrely staged court cases in movie history. It’s at this point that Burton loses control of Waltz’s performance, and the movie goes all out to provide as farcical a conclusion as you’re likely to see all year (or any other). Up til now Waltz has mugged and grinned his way through the movie in an effort to showcase Walter’s charm and public good nature. But it’s so off-putting the viewer becomes glad when he’s not on screen. It also makes the viewer wonder if anyone was ever paying attention to Waltz’s interpretation, so completely off the wall is it. Next to him, Adams opts for pained disappointment and resigned looks, and imbues Margaret with a vagueness of character that she never fully shrugs off or replaces.

The script for Big Eyes tries its best to make Margaret’s art more relevant than it actually is – only art critic John Canaday (Stamp) is allowed to offer a voice of reason – but this is about one woman’s decision to be recognised and not kept in the shadows by her domineering husband. As a result, some scenes lack focus, while others seem included as padding rather than as a way to bolster the narrative. Burton directs as if he hasn’t quite connected with the material (which is strange as he commissioned the real Margaret Keane to paint a portrait of his ex-wife Lisa Marie), and while the movie is boosted by some beautifully framed and lit camerawork by Bruno Delbonnel, it’s effectiveness is undercut by some choppy editing and a score by Danny Elfman that doesn’t quite enhance the drama.

Rating: 6/10 – a mixed bag of a movie with a memorable performance (for all the wrong reasons) by Waltz, Big Eyes takes a true story and downplays the seriousness of what was, basically, a massive fraud perpetrated on the American public; drily humorous in part, but also dramatically undercooked, this unusual tale would probably have worked better as a documentary.