Directed by: Tim Burton
Premise: Based on a true story. The paintings of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) achieve phenomenal success in the 1950s and 60s but her husband takes credit for her work.
What Works: Big Eyes is a story about a woman fighting for her integrity and the movie succeeds primarily because of the two lead performances. Amy Adams is cast as Margaret Keane and, as usual, Adams is great. This role is a bit different from the parts that Adams has usually played. Adams is typically cast in roles that require her to be bubbly, outgoing, or assertive as seen in films like The Fighter, Enchanted, and Julie & Julia. In Big Eyes, Amy Adams is cast as a woman with a quiet constitution who initially lacks the confidence to stand up for herself but gradually pulls herself out from under the shadow of her husband. A lot of the movie consists of scenes of Adams sitting in front of a canvas and it is to Adams’ credit that she’s able to communicate a lot about the character through little details such as the way in which she holds herself in conversations. Margaret Keane’s husband Walter is played by Christoph Waltz and he is a very effective counterweight to Adams. Where Adams’ character is talented but unable to sell herself and her work, Waltz’s character has no artistic talent but he is tremendously outgoing and skilled at deal making and self-promotion. In that sense they are a perfect pair but Walter poisons their relationship by insisting that he take credit for everything. Margaret goes along with the lie and much of the middle of the film dramatizes the success that the couple achieved but also the impact of the lie on Margaret’s sense of self-worth and her relationship with her daughter. Those two things are very effectively conveyed and they give the character a credible motivation to disrupt her life and set compelling stakes for her success. As a biographical picture about an artist, Big Eyes is notable in the way it connects the work with the drama. In a lot of biopics about creative people, personal foibles like drug abuse and failed romances often push the art into the background of the story. In Big Eyes the drama and the artist’s work are intertwined.
What Doesn’t: Big Eyes was directed by Tim Burton but this is not really recognizable as a Burton picture. The director’s films usually have a distinct style; even Burton’s more realistic movies like Big Fish and Ed Wood had a whimsical quality to them. With the exception of a couple of scenes, Big Eyes does not feel like a Tim Burton picture. That might make Big Eyes more accessible to a mainstream audience but it is also somewhat generic and that is the major flaw of this movie. The art of Margaret Keane was noteworthy because it was so distinct from what was in vogue at the time but Big Eyes is straightforward biographical Hollywood filmmaking. The story progresses steadily but predictably and it’s obvious where all of this is headed but the filmmakers don’t answer one of the fundamental questions that they raise. In a critical scene, Christoph Waltz’s character must come up with a backstory about why he would have created these paintings of children with enlarged eyeballs. The husband devises a fraudulent backstory for himself but the filmmakers never reveal why Margaret Keane created her art this way and why she was so obsessed with one particular subject. The filmmakers also give themselves over to an immature depiction of art critics as snide, fun-hating elitists but the fact is that Keane basically painted the same image over and over again. She was popular and she created work that resonated with the public but Keane’s range was quite slim and the filmmakers conflate the drama of her life with her significance as an artist.
Bottom Line: Tim Burton’s directorial career has been uneven lately, suffering from a lot of disappointing remakes, but he mostly rights himself with Big Eyes. This is neither Burton’s best work nor his worst but it is a successful drama about the relationship between an artist and her work.
Episode: #524 (January 11, 2015)