Big Eyes is a straightforward biopic. Margaret Keane’s story is an interesting one I didn’t know before, so just presenting it makes a decent movie. Stories of artists tend be appreciated by film lovers anyway, and the kind of work Keane did lends itself to Tim Burton touches.
Margaret (Amy Adams) is a struggling single mom who paints portraits of children with big eyes. Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) is an experienced painter who woos Margaret and marries her. When her big eyed waifs become more marketable than his Parisian street scenes, Walter becomes the salesman. He also takes credit for the paintings.
Seems innocent enough at first. They’re both supporting the family and he’s just maximizing the sales of her work. Margaret is willing to take one for the team, but you can see her attic workshop is so oppressive. It spirals quickly as Walter has to explain his inspiration for the work. He becomes an actor, the face of the company, betraying Margaret further and further.
You could chalk it up to ‘50s sexism resisting women in the workplace (artplace?), but that’s not all it is. As whimsically as Walter swept Margaret off her feet in the beginning, you can imagine he becomes volatile and dangerous, although his desperation becomes pathetically hilarious at points. He springs pretty big secrets on Margaret, and us, more than midway through the movie/their marriage.
The film touches on a lot of interesting things, though rarely goes into depth. The value of a copy versus an original plagues us today, let alone the art world of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The issue of fraud is tricky, as Margaret consents, though under duress, and who is she actually defrauding besides herself? It reminded me of Charles Van Doren. He went before congressional hearings for faking a quiz show, but what law said televised quiz shows couldn’t be performances? Reality TV shows still are!
Jevoha’s Witnesses are represented favorably, and minimally. I imagine they were significant enough in Margaret’s life to include them, but not enough to delve deep into her belief system. Apparently, the old “a critic is someone who can’t create” spiel was already old in 1964. Thank you Terrence Stamp for dismissing that nonsense succinctly.
Burton shoots Big Eyes very simply. A lot of the shots are head on, dollying into each character’s point of view. It’s so plain that the plainness itself is weird and Burton-esque. Then of course when Margaret starts seeing her big eyes in real life, that’s where you get why it’s Tim Burton. I was even impressed that ‘50s streets were constructed simply for establishing shots. There must be some CGI work in there.
Big Eyes does Margaret Keane justice. Adams is so emotional you feel her heartbreak in the earliest simple betrayals, let alone when it gets more intense. Waltz is whimsical and charming, tragic and frightening. It’s a solid movie. I wouldn’t necessarily rush out to see it, but its definitely a good time.
Rating: Dollar Theater