|movie review | August 2016
"Big Eyes" is a welcome surprise from Burton
by Anita Casey-Reed
A woman races through her picture-perfect 1950s suburban home, grabbing the only two things that matter to her: her daughter and her art supplies. She drives off to a San Francisco alive with art, music, culture -- everything she needs to feed her creative spirit. Thus begins "Big Eyes", starring Amy Adams as the real-life artist Margaret Keane. In the 1960s her paintings were the most popular items in American art, and yet no one knew she had created them. How? That's the crux of the story, and another case where truth is stranger than fiction could ever be.
As Margaret struggles as a single mother in the big city, she catches the eye of another vendor at the outdoor art market, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz). Keane is, for all the paintings he displays, really an artist with his words. He cajoles, wheedles, flatters, and overwhelms -- first, in his romance with Margaret and her initial reluctance to marry again, and then with potential buyers of their paintings (his landscapes of Europe and her portraits of children with huge, sad eyes).
Then it apparently begins with a simple white lie, as Walter says "yes" when a woman who loves Margaret's painting asks if he is the artist. How can Margaret complain? They made the sale, she gets shy around others, people "don't buy lady art", Walter's so much better at schmoozing with clients -- the self-justifications go on and on. Over the next decade, the big-eyed waifs become both loved (by the public) and hated (by the critics), and Walter plays the part of successful artist to the hilt. When Margaret decides to leave, Walter erupts into a fury that ends in a courtroom battle to determine who the real Keane behind the art is.
By far, the best thing in this film is Amy Adams' performance (with this role, she won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical, which is interesting since "Big Eyes" is neither a comedy nor a musical). While spanning a decade of married life and shifts in the dynamic of their relationship, Adams conveys Margaret's growing realization that she's trapped in her own lies of omission, and that Walter's lies of commission are far more extensive and deliberate than she first thought.
At first glance, "Big Eyes" seems a slightly unusual film for Tim Burton for being, well, NOT unusual. It displays few of the stylistic flourishes of his other movies, and the characters are not as outlandish (although it might have helped the overall tone if Waltz's performance had been reigned in slightly). The closest comparison is Burton's other portrait of a real-life figure, 1994's "Ed Wood". Just as Wood loved the sheer process of creation, no matter what the critics said, Margaret Keane could not, would not, stop creating her art. Her creativity was her life force, and even today, in her ninth decade, she reportedly still paints every day.
Anita Casey-Reed is a member of the Cinema 100 Film Society and a volunteer for the Dakota Digital Film Festival. She lives in Bismarck with her husband and two children.