Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Jon Polito, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp
MPAA Rating: (for thematic elements and brief strong language)
Running Time: 1:45
Release Date: 12/25/14
Review by Mark Dujsik | December 24, 2014
They say living well is the best revenge against being wronged. Surely, though, there's a case to be made for the revenge of being the subject of a movie that systematically details the specifics and the extent of those wrongs.
Big Eyes vindicates Margaret Keane, the artist responsible for depictions of children with eyes of unnaturally large size in paintings that became insanely popular in the 1960s, as the victim of an abusive, manipulative relationship that resulted in her work going unacknowledged as her own until a 1986 court case. That the movie exclusively portrays Keane as the victim of an abusive and manipulative relationship, though, means that everything else about her life and work goes unacknowledged and unappreciated. Call it a well-intentioned but half-hearted and misguided vindication.
Keane is not even granted the favor of having a movie about her story actually be her story. Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski instead and, perhaps, inadvertently focus on the man who wronged her for 30 years. In their defense, Walter Keane, the man who was her husband for a decade and a bullying impostor for about a quarter of a century, is the more dynamic and intriguing character in this story. Who's really getting revenge here?
The Margaret of the movie is a weak-willed character who is tempted by the prospect of wealth and indirect fame by means of a far more authoritative person. The movie doesn't go so far as to suggest that she's a co-conspirator in or a direct enabler of fraud, but it's not a well-rounded or even flattering portrayal, either. For a movie that opens with narration decrying the social prejudices against women during the time in which it is set, it certainly doesn't counter that perspective in any meaningful way until a climactic showdown in a Honolulu courtroom.
Even then, the movie is more of a comic study of arrogant hubris on the part of Margaret's foil. She does nothing to defeat him, save to start in motion the process by which he will defeat himself.
In a way, the story is not the triumph of Margaret Keane but the tragedy of Walter Keane, a man with nothing who gains everything he wanted through lies and deceit. That means, of course, that he never really gained anything except an illusion. He's a wretched person here, but so too are so many of the tragic heroes. He's pitiable not only in that his actions are contemptible but also in that we kind of pity him. He's an abject failure in everything he does, and he remains one even in his greatest but falsely obtained success.
Amy Adams plays Margaret as far as the screenplay allows her (which, sadly, isn't too far), and Cristoph Waltz plays Walter with the sort of unrestrained passion that robs the spotlight from anyone and everyone around him. He is insidiously charming, wildly ebullient, dejectedly morose, and genuinely threatening. These qualities come in turns, but at times, two, three, all of them, or more exist simultaneously in his performance, resulting in a bacchanal of distorted humanity. Waltz' scenes during the trial, in which Walter proves the old chestnut about representing oneself in court, are an abundance of comedic inspiration.
The odds are truly against Margaret as a character of much interest in the movie, which initially follows her leaving one husband (in a time, Danny Huston's newspaper-columnist narrator informs us, when such a thing was unheard of) to seek a new life in San Francisco. No one will hire her, and to try to earn any income for herself and her daughter/muse Jane (played at different times in her life by Delaney Raye and Madeleine Arthur), Margaret begins drawing caricatures at a weekend art fair. She meets Walter, a fellow artist who captivates her with his amiable personality and stories of his artistic education in Paris.
As one might expect from the aforementioned details of this story, things take a severe turn for the worse after they marry. Walter begins showing his and Margaret's artwork in the bathroom hallway of a nightclub, but only her paintings gain any attention.
On a whim, he declares that he painted the children with the oversized eyes, and the lie spirals out of control until the paintings become a revolutionary, multi-million-dollar industry (much to the chagrin of an art critic played by Terence Stamp and a gallery owner played by Jason Schwartzman—two amusingly droll performances). Margaret must lock herself in her various studios to keep any curious parties from learning the truth. In the only stylistic flourish to suggest the director's hand, Tim Burton gives us a few scenes of her art infiltrating real life, as she sees and is haunted by random people with exaggerated eyes staring at her and through the lie.
Considering the screenplay's reduction of this story to one of broad and conflicting personalities, it's almost inevitable that the movie delves into melodrama (shouting matches and boasting declarations and a ridiculously contrived scene involving a fire). There's no denying that the story of the Keanes is a fascinating one, but with its inverted perspective of the characters, Big Eyes misses the point by a long shot.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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