Director Tim Burton returns, not with his usual self-conscious kookiness, but with a sober true-life story: Margaret Keane’s journey from enabler of her con artist husband to courtroom victor. The point of controversy? Margaret’s “big-eyed” paintings of children, claimed by her husband Walter as his own work. They are works that society defines by their kitsch, but which carry great personal value to her.
Big Eyes is a portrait of an emotionally abusive relationship, but with a payoff that reflects the film’s constant brightness and sunshine. As for the spouses themselves, leads Amy Adams as Margaret Keane and Christoph Waltz as Walter Keane play off each other very well, in part because they are so polar in their performance styles. Adams is reserved, ever radiating wounded pride, and with a lot going on that’s internal. Waltz is gregarious and so very external. He infuses Walter with a gee-whiz lunacy that is certainly… unique. At times he goes so far over the top he resembles something of a painted figure himself, but by all accounts the real Walter Keane really was like that, so I’ll just run with it. Waltz’ showiness complements Adams’ internalized performance well.
But her character’s restraint informs the film as a whole as well. In the film’s second act, wherein Walter is taking credit for Margaret’s paintings unchallenged, there is a lot of superficial talk about the inspiration for these strange paintings. But Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s script never delves into Margaret’s true inspiration for them. In the context of the film, the paintings are an arbitrary quirk, an element with potential for effective development that goes untouched. Screenwriters Alexander and Karaszewski previously collaborated with Burton on his only other film based on true events, 1994’s Ed Wood. That is certainly the best Burton film I’ve seen, and Big Eyes struggles to recapture that magic. The title character in Ed Wood is so vividly realized, with perfectly articulated dreams and eccentricities. Margaret Keane could have desperately used some of that insight. Her reactiveness could have been balanced with more depth of character.
For his part, I venture to say that Tim Burton has a personal attachment to the story of this film. In 1991, Burton actually commissioned the real Margaret Keane for a painting of his then-wife Lisa Marie; later he did the same for his partner Helena Bonham Carter. Thus a sense of responsibility follows Burton to this film, but this respect does not help the film stand out. It is a story told well enough, but nothing more. It is efficient, not extraordinary, safe rather than stunning.
I don’t mean to be reductive, as there are worse things a film can be than efficient. And you could very validly make the argument that Big Eyes is not trying to blow your socks off, but rather tell its story with a minimum of bells and whistles. It is a very good production. The heightened color and compositions contribute to the atmosphere, and there is a fantastic sense of place (1950s and 60s San Francisco and Hawaii). Lana del Rey’s title song, though perhaps oddly placed in a film with such a firm sense of its own time period, is effective and ethereal (that’s twice in 2014 she’s positively contributed to a film’s soundtrack; her cover of “Once Upon a Dream” in Maleficent is one of the only things I like in that mangled movie). The supporting cast (Jason Schwarzman, Krysten Ritter, Terence Stamp) do able work, with Schwarzman’s art snob being the standout.
So Big Eyes is a mixed bag, but defined more by a lack of true spark than anything actively wrong with the final product. Amy Adams gives a very strong central performance; it’s just a shame she didn’t have a little more to work with. It’s a refreshing Tim Burton film, coming after some of his more overblown 21st Century epics. Just don’t expect Ed Wood. A weak 6/10.