January 01, 2015

Big Eyes

Tim Burton’s film Big Eyes is an account of the artist Margaret Keane (played in the film by Amy Adams), whose signature mark was the wide, exaggerated-looking eyes of her subjects, most of which were children. In the 1960s, Keane’s then-husband Walter (played by Christoph Waltz) took credit for her work until Keane divorced him and took him to court, finally revealing to the world that she was the real artist behind the paintings rather than her slick, salesman-like husband.

The film opens in suburban California, where Margaret Ulbrich (later Keane) is hurriedly packing her belongings and fleeing her banal existence with her young daughter in tow. She divorces her husband (we’re never sure why), and mother and daughter find themselves virtually alone in San Francisco, where making a living as a single mom—in 1958—appears to be almost impossible. That’s when Margaret meets a fellow artist named Walter Keane. They’re both trying to sell paintings at an art show, and Keane makes a move by complimenting the na├»ve, unconfident Margaret on the quality of her work.

Big Eyes has a kitschy feel to it. Of course, this was the 1950s and early 60s, when America—at least as it’s realized in our collective nostalgia and imagination—seemed to be in love with kitsch, with artificiality, and the veneer of the starched, clean-cut American family was just that: a veneer. Tim Burton has always loved kitsch, but now it feels forced and hollow, where films like Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood had something underneath the kitsch: real personal filmmaking. Unfortunately, Big Eyes misses that personal touch.

Margaret Keane is in many ways an ideal choice for Burton’s continuing “exploration” of American kitsch. (Which is why it’s so disappointing that he completely misses the mark in this movie about her.) Keane’s work—according to the film at least—was constantly being scrutinized by critics as faux art, appealing to the masses because of its crudeness. But Burton isn’t interested in exploring this aspect of the story. He uses these negative assessments of Keane’s work to take the all-too easy shot at critics. Actually, Terence Stamp, playing the oldest and snootiest art critic in the movie, does get an amusing line when Walter Keane screams at him in public that critics are incapable of creating art: “That musty chestnut?” (Perhaps Burton fixates on critics so doggedly because his own work has been met with so much negative response over the last fifteen or so years). Burton engages with the negative criticism merely to enshrine his subject, Margaret Keane, in a museum exhibition of victimhood. There’s no doubt how the director feels about this art, and yet there’s no vitality to his passion, no real proof of what makes him love it so much. This is a treatise on the fact that Margaret Keane originated the paintings, not a defense of their value or why these paintings deserve to be remembered.

Whether or not the movie is absolutely truthful, it turns Margaret Keane into a passive wimp. (And it forces Amy Adams into a muted, restrained performance that feels like a real disservice to her as an actress, especially when she’s one of the best actresses working in movies today.) Yes, the film opens with Margaret as an active agent: She leaves a marriage that is apparently unhappy (and perhaps unhealthy) and starts a new life for her daughter and herself. She gets a job. She pursues her love of painting. Good so far. But once she meets Walter Keane, she turns into a devoted, silently-suffering Stepford wife, going along with a scheme that hurts her tremendously, even though she’s smart enough and strong enough not to cower so willingly.

As Margaret’s “Big Eyes” art becomes astronomically successful, the lie she’s living begins to weigh her down. But the film is so set on Margaret Keane as victim that even when she starts standing up for herself it feels hollow and unsatisfying. Burton occasionally applies some tiresome narration to round out the plot for us, such as at the beginning, when the narrator reminds us of the plight of women in the 50s, as though this were an excuse for Margaret’s prolonged cooperation in fraud. The film never makes a convincing case for why she’s quiet about her husband’s deception for so long, when it seems that there are numerous opportunities for Margaret to reveal the truth and improve her own situation.

Big Eyes does become more interesting in the last round, but only because we’ve invested so much time in hating Walter Keane for being such a pompous, manipulative ass. Christoph Waltz seems to be having fun playing such a slimy individual, but he becomes downright cartoonish in the big courtroom scene where the judge demands that both he and his ex-wife paint to see who’s actually telling the truth.

In his love for this artist (Burton apparently even commissioned a Keane painting back in the 90s), Tim Burton has lost sight of making a convincing movie. The film is incredibly uneven. It’s by turns a very conventional biopic, a creepy study of public manipulation, and a weird courtroom farce. These tonal shifts feel utterly surprising and even chaotic, especially one scene where a drunken Walter chases Margaret and her daughter into the art studio and then begins tossing lit matches inside through a very wide keyhole, eventually igniting the carpet thanks to some conveniently placed turpentine—which the feeble Margaret herself knocks over. If this is supposed to be a movie about the dignity of women and the unfairness of their plight in times past, it hardly feels worth the trouble.

With Danny Huston, Jon Polito, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman (who plays a snooty gallery owner and who utters the film’s funniest line), Terence Stamp, Madeleine Arthur, and Delaney Raye. Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.

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