One of the things I enjoy most about cinema, and the process of following the careers of various directors, actors and other creative types, is that one week I could be watching a middling ten-year-old film by someone – let’s say Tim Burton, for example – and the next I could find myself sitting through the very same person’s highly enjoyable return to form. Big Eyes, Burton’s most recent feature, is exactly that. It’s an unusual story that offers a degree of (unsubtle) commentary on the way in which art is linked to fashion, the way that people’s opinions on a particular artwork or style can be easily swayed by critics or celebrity patronage, and the way in which art was gradually commercialised and mass produced for public consumption throughout the 20th Century. As someone who has had his share of ups and downs during his long career, flavour of the month and on the wrong end of scathing reviews in roughly equal measures, Burton seems like a good fit for this story about an outsider artist who becomes popular without receiving due recognition for her work.
The story in question, penned by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, seems far-fetched but is actually based on real life events. Margaret Keane is well-known today for her paintings of children with saucer-like eyes, but in the 1960s – when those same paintings were selling quicker than she could paint them – her second husband Walter convinced the world that he was the artist behind the work. Burton’s film explores the way in which this unusual scenario arose and details the couple’s relationship from promising start to acrimonious finish. We first see Margaret, played by Amy Adams, leaving her first husband with daughter Jane (Delaney Raye, later played by Madeleine Arthur) in tow; we never find out why that marriage ended. She moves to pre-flower power San Francisco, where she sells her ‘big eyes’ pictures for whatever amount she can haggle up to, but she isn’t a natural saleswoman. Margaret meets fellow artist Walter (Christoph Waltz), instantly swooning when exposed to his calculated, fake charm, and she is impressed by his ability to sell and promote. They marry and Walter, who has little artistic talent of his own, begins to take credit for Margaret’s work, referring to the paintings as if they were made by his hand. The timid Margaret goes along with Walter’s plan and the pair become rich, but she is understandably unhappy while he hogs the limelight and receives all the plaudits. The joy of the film comes from seeing Margaret slowly grow in strength and stand up to this opportunistic douchebag, and it’s quite satisfying to see the tables turned on the villain of the piece in the final act.
The acting is deliberately over the top, and highlights both Margaret’s initial meekness and Walter’s tendency towards bullying and duplicity. Adams and Waltz produce performances that are typical of Burton’s films, in that they are off kilter and unrealistic but ultimately just believable enough; tonally it’s not dissimilar to Ed Wood, another Burton film about an outsider dismissed by the critical establishment, but if anything it’s closer to the neo-screwballs the Coens tend to produce once every decade (though think more The Hudsucker Proxy than Intolerable Cruelty). There are enjoyable, equally over-the-top supporting roles for Terence Stamp as a New York Times art critic, Jon Polito as a jazz club proprietor and Jason Schwartzman as an elitist San Francisco gallerist; they’re largely in the story for comic effect.
It’s no Ed Wood, but Burton’s fans will enjoy it: once again his milieu is a brightly-coloured reconstruction of 1950s and 60s America, the retro period styling forced upon the viewer a little heavy-handedly but sumptuously designed nonetheless. The story is quite simple and predictable, too, but something about Big Eyes clicked for me. I particularly enjoyed Adams’ performance, which is filled with subtle gestures and carefully drawn body language, while Waltz’s overacting is fun and not mis-placed: the courtroom showdown, in which he arrogantly decides to represent himself in front of an impatient judge, is a highlight. Not Burton’s best, by any means, but a welcome improvement on the last couple of films.
Directed by: Tim Burton.
Written by: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski.
Starring: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Jon Polito, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp.
Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel.
Editing: JC Bond.
Music: Danny Elfman.
Running Time: 105 minutes.