Big Eyes review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Big Eyes is Tim Burton’s second biopic since 1994’s Ed Wood. In that previous film, Burton attempts to find the method to the madness of artistic outsiders. He succeeded at capturing the wonders and amazement of a cheap filmmaker with big dreams - an easy enough character for Burton to relate with. It’s a bit perplexing trying to figure out what he saw in the tale of Margaret Keene’s painting career. Her story certainly has an interesting focus on plagiarism and artistic integrity, but it still seems like an odd choice of a film for Tim Burton despite his interest in the subject matter of art.
Curiously missing from the film is Burton’s trademark style of surreal whimsy in his photography and direction. He pulls back on that for this picture most likely to keep the story more grounded, but perhaps too much. For a story that takes place in the 1960’s, his dressing is greatly restrained. There is one brief moment of surrealism in which the artist in question starts viewing others with the large eyes of her paintings; so brief that if you blink you’ll miss it. Why even bother including such surrealism when it equates to so little? Burton mostly leaves it up to the actors to carry this plot which I can’t blame him for since Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz are exceptional talents.
Amy Adams plays the plucky and doubtful Margaret Keene - a woman so shy and unsure she thinks cappuccino is slang for marijuana. She wants to be a great artist, but squanders her talent on painting baby crib designs in a factory and dollar-sketches on the street. But her paintings of big-eyed children soon attracts the eye of the eccentric street artist Walter, enthusiastically played by Waltz. Inspired by her talent, he quickly makes his move by marrying Margaret and going into business with her as a painting duo. Walter’s city backgrounds and Margaret’s big-eyed portraits soon become noted in small galleries, but Margaret’s paintings sell far more than Walter’s. Jealous of the fame and attention she’d receive, Walter claims her work as his own. She’s naturally disgusted when she first hears of this, but the money and lies are already coiled around her life. She simply watches on with unease as her husband makes it on television while she paints “his” work in the shadows.
Adams and Waltz do the best with what they’re offered in a story that plays just a tad too straight. I couldn’t take my eyes off Waltz the way he plays a cackling jackal of a con artist, even if there wasn’t much to his character. When being interviewed in public, he’s a smiling devil that never shuts down. When he’s around his wife, he’s a nervous wreck and psychopath trying to conceal his dirty secret. As the lie drives Walter to insanity, it drives Margaret to desperation. She becomes flustered and conflicted with how she appears to her daughter as the painter without a credit. Adams does a much better job with playing such a complex role as opposed to Waltz’ one-note villain. You feel for her depression in silence while her husband’s evil nature feels too base to identify with as a layered antagonist. His snide huckster of a character feels more like a side character from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.
The story of Margaret Keene was originally going to be directed by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski with Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Reynolds in the lead roles. Tim Burton was signed on to take over in 2013 and it shows how this wasn’t quite his project to start with. He makes small attempts at injecting some entertainment into the true tale, but mostly just plays it straight to the point where it annoys. Thankfully, most of Burton’s personal perspective of art and it’s popularity is conveyed through the picture, uneven as it may be. And I can’t fault Adams and Waltz for their performances - simple roles though they may be. Big Eyes falls short of its major interest level with Tim Burton struggling to find its tone, but has a few strokes of brilliance worthy of a mild recommendation.