This straight drama, unusual for director Tim Burton, is based on the true story of 1950’s painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) and her struggle to step out of the shadows and make public that her manipulative husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) had been taking credit for her unique work for years. It’s refreshing to see a Tim Burton film free of the gothic and to find him working with actors other than his usual Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, Big Eyes marking the first major Burton film not to feature Bonham Carter in a role since they began their parternship in 2001 which ended with their break-up in 2014. Still, there are some nice Burton touches here and there, his visual flair most evident in a shot of an eyeball peering through a keyhole; a scene set in Hawaii in which colors from flowers pop off the screen; and most notably a nightmarish moment in a supermarket where Margaret hallucinates shoppers around her sporting the huge eyes that defined her art.
Other than these occasional flourishes, Big Eyes is a largely straightforward telling of Margaret Keane’s story and her (often creepy) portraits of mostly children with huge dark eyes that at best straddled the border between pop art and kitsch. As Margaret, Amy Adams does an admirable job of portraying a strong yet conflicted woman pushing against the constraints of the era’s patriarchal society. Adams is particularly adept at expressing conflicting emotions and in scenes in which doubt, self-doubt and self-recrimination play across her face simultaneously, she fully inhabits the character, well earning her Golden Globe for Best Actress for the role. She even does a credible job of smoking, something many actors seem clearly awkward at, though perhaps her perfect teeth are a bit too perfect when Burton’s camera goes in for a close-up, which is often. Speaking of teeth, Christoph Waltz can always be counted on to chew his way through a scene like cud and, if you like that sort of thing, he doesn’t disappoint as Keane’s charismatic, ambitious-to-a-fault husband who at first takes credit for her work knowing it will be easier to get the paintings sold but continues the ruse as the money pours in.
In the end, the unveiling of his deception depends upon Walter being able to create a “big eyes” painting in the moment, in front of a judge and jury. The court proceedings are presented rather comically, in large part due to Waltz’s grandiose gestures and posturing especially when acting as his own counsel and cross-examining himself. Walter, apparently completely lacking any artistic talent, doesn’t even try to paint while Margaret immediately sets to work, creating another signature piece. It does make one wonder though that in all those years, Walter never picked up a brush and taught himself to replicate Margaret’s style; we’re not exactly talking Picasso here. Ultimately, Big Eyes is an entertaining fact-based film about a female artist eventually coming into her own despite a society predisposed to male artists and a con artist husband passing off her work as his own, well worth re-visiting for its period detail and strong performances.
Review by Mike Fishman.
Mike Fishman has an M.A. in Film from American University and has worked for ICM, IFP, Tribeca Film Institute, Hamptons International Film Festival, and the Columbia University Film School.