Early on in Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) pontificates that art is not about quality when it comes to whether it sells. It’s about being at the right place at the right time. For many years, Walter’s words couldn’t ring more true for himself. And he could’ve added meeting the right person.
That person is Margaret (Amy Adams) and she’s a recent divorcee in the late 1950s (when it was quite uncommon) with a talent for painting portraits of her young daughter. Her signature look is our movie title on the face of her work. When she meets Walter, he seduces her with his plentiful charm and they’re soon married. He presents himself as a fellow painter, but his Paris landscapes don’t interest anyone. Margaret’s, on the other hand, begin to capture some attention and soon a confluence of circumstances lead Walter to claim credit for her work. Those circumstances (most completely Walter’s doing and some not) additionally lead his wife to go along with the deceit for a long time. As the years roll by, Walter becomes a renowned and celebrated figure, while conflicted Margaret paints their fortune in her secret studio in homes that grow in size.
Big Eyes is based on true events and the art filled subject matter is right up Burton’s alley, though with a majorly smaller budget than he’s used to. The 50s and then 60s San Francisco setting provides a vibrant look to the proceedings. Unlike most of the director’s recent efforts, the only special effects is some big eyes superimposed on human faces from time to time. The focus is on the relationship of Walter and Margaret. Recognizable faces like Danny Huston, Jon Polito, Krysten Ritter, Terence Stamp and Jason Schwartzman pop up in small supporting roles. Truth be told, the relationship dynamic between our two leads is often treading familiar territory. Margaret lives in an era where challenging her husband’s word is not easy. She even attempts to tell her huge secret during confession and the priest basically tells her to obey him.
The work of primarily Adams is impressive, as it almost always is. Creating a sympathetic character who still is not totally innocent in all her actions, the actress is fascinating to watch. Waltz is an exciting performer who’s earned two Oscars for his mastery of Tarantino’s dialogue. The role of Walter is a tricky one. He is painted in broad strokes in the screenplay and the filmmakers insist they actually downplayed him from real life. It may all be the truth about Walter’s world of non truth, but it is difficult to view him as anything more than a caricature on occasion.
Adams’ work and the legitimately interesting real life tale we see here are enough to recommend Big Eyes. It is also refreshing to see Burton doing commendable work without a $200 million budget remaking something, like he did 20 years back with Ed Wood. Speaking of that effort, Big Eyes comes from the same writers (Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski). This isn’t as memorable as that fine picture about a terrible director, but it’s a good film about a talented artist who is directed into a heckuva big scheme.
*** (out of four)