Big Eyes, 2014, 3 stars

Lyin’ eyes

Tim Burton deals a blow to painterly plagiarism

Exclusive to MeierMovies.com, December 12, 2014

Tim Burton clearly has a thing for exaggerated, even distorted, body parts. Several of his films embrace a Victorian, almost Steampunk, look, complete with over-the-top hourglass figures and Romantic visions of femininity. This visual style even invaded his personal life several years ago, when he commissioned painter Margaret Keane – famous for her depictions of girls with enormous eyes – to create a portrait of his then-girlfriend Lisa Marie.

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Photo copyright Tim Burton Productions/The Weinstein Company/Silverwood Films

Fast forward to today, and it should come as no surprise that Burton – after first being involved just as a producer – has directed Big Eyes, the story of Keane and her battle with her slimy ex-husband, Walter, over authorship of the paintings. We now know she painted them, but the story of how we came to realize that is a fascinating one, and a subject that’s a bit of a departure for Burton, who hasn’t done a biopic like this since he created his masterpiece, Ed Wood, 20 years ago. And though he struggles to find a balance between more conventional storytelling and his usual brand of brilliant, surreal lunacy, he gets it mostly right and still manages to imbue the film with his signature sense of style and humor, despite the odd casting of Christoph Waltz as Walter.

The film is narrated sporadically, and a bit intrusively, by the character of Dick Nolan, a slightly disreputable newspaper reporter who came to know the Keanes. He starts this “strangest goddamn story” in the late 1950s, when Margaret abruptly leaves her first husband. “All she had were her paintings in her trunk and her daughter in her back seat,” he tells us.

That soon changes when she meets Walter, whom she (and we) believe to be another artist, while both are exhibiting at an outdoor show in the San Francisco area. Walter immediately senses her vulnerability and fragility, and takes her under his wing, both professionally and romantically. “You undervalue yourself,” he tells her, “[but] what’s with the big, crazy eyes?”

“I believe you can see things in the eyes,” she says. “Eyes are how I express myself.”

Yet despite finding a husband in Walter, she loses some of that expression after he starts taking credit for the creations. And thus begins a decade-long extravaganza of pop-art success and unabashed plagiarism that doesn’t end until, well, you’ll just have to see Burton’s film to find out. And though I do recommend it, the movie is not in Burton’s upper echelon.

While Amy Adams is her usual magical self as Margaret, Waltz is slightly miscast. He has the requisite smarm, charm and manic energy, but not much of the subtlety – which, admittedly, is not what Burton is known for. And though Adams takes great care in cultivating a nicely understated Tennessee dialect, Waltz can’t quite escape his Austrian accent, even though Walter is an all-American guy from Nebraska.

Supporting Adams and Waltz are Terence Stamp in a brilliant but too-brief role as an art critic, Danny Huston as the narrating reporter and an unfunny, unneeded Jason Schwartzman as the owner of a rival art gallery. And, as always, Burton’s production design, though muted by his usual standards, adds flair, as does the simple but wonderfully melancholy title song by Lana Del Ray. But, ultimately, the finished product is a bit clunkier that one expects from such a wonderful storyteller.

Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the screenplay condenses some incidents and alters the timeline significantly, but the basic events are accurate. More importantly, the heart of the story – and the heart of Margaret herself, which seems as pure as the children in her paintings – is preserved, while we are treated to a unique examination of the personal value of art and one’s own self-worth. Oh, and even better: Walter, one of history’s most untalented, pathetic, misogynistic hacks, gets a healthy heaping of humiliation on screen for an hour and 45 minutes. What a great way to get into the Christmas spirit!

Copyright 2014 © Cameron Meier