BIG EYES Review

Margaret Keane was made a prisoner and forced to live a lie. She was a timid, creative type not confident in her own skill and she was taken advantage of to the point she became trapped in this lie she felt she helped create. What was worse was that the cover-up of the initial lie became more punishing than the lie itself and only continued to grow and eat away at Margaret for the better part of a decade. With this type of story, this kind of inherently dramatic and interesting material there is plenty to dissect and examine and in the hands of a director like Tim Burton you might imagine that to be pretty promising. As of late though, Burton has resorted to a safety zone of reliable tricks and familiar stylings in order to keep his output regular and as a result his overall clout has somewhat diminished with those who adored his earlier work. Burton has always had a singular style, but the issue as of late has been finding material inspiring enough to match his peculiar visions. With Big Eyes he has the opportunity to present something of an introspective look at the dynamics of a marriage where one partner is essentially a slave and the other is delusional to the point of being a maniac. There are surely several statements to be made here, but Burton simply allows the material to speak for itself; intending to do little with his approach other than ensuring it looks like a Tim Burton film. As far as the depths of the souls in question here though, the material is only skin deep. For example, David Fincher took what could have easily become little more than a Lifetime-channel drama about a dysfunctional marriage earlier this year and by infusing it with his distinct voice, his precise style and countless undertones all while keeping the focus on one major theme crafted the most engaging crime thriller of the year if not the last decade. There is no such resonance to Big Eyes, but instead it is simply fine for what it is with two talented actors doing what they do best. It is a modest effort that I can't say I didn't enjoy as the story is interesting and perplexing, but I wasn't taken in by it and I wasn't thinking about it hours after leaving the theater. Instead, because it asked so little of me as an active viewer I suspected it had no intentions of lingering and so it's hard to fault it for being something it's not, but it's disappointing knowing it could have been something more.

Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) convinces his wife, Margaret (Amy Adams), to let him sell her paintings.
Told through narration by newspaper editor Dick Nolan (Danny Huston) we begin in 1958 when Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) decided to leave her first husband in a time when wives didn't make such decisions. Taking her daughter Jane (Delaney Raye, Madeline Arthur) with her to North Beach, San Francisco Margaret intends on starting anew as she moves in with close friend Dee-Ann (Krysten Ritter). She soon secures a job painting at a furniture factory while continuing to draw portraits of people willing to pay on the weekends. It is at one of these outdoor art shows that Margaret catches the eye of fellow painter Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz). Walter paints scenic views that he conjures up from his time spent in Paris and sells them at much higher prices than what Margaret is asking of her customers. In their first conversations, Margaret is encouraged by the charming Walter to give herself more credit, understand that she is worth more than what she is asking while attempting to teach her the art of selling herself and not just the selling of her art. Margaret is far too unassuming to be as brash as Walter comes off, but somehow he still convinces the newly single artist to join him on a date. It is clear from the moment Walter takes her to a restaurant where he won't have to pick up the check because he has given the owners artwork that there is something slightly off about the sly painter. Still, as the film feels required to hit these necessary beats we watch as Margaret's ex-husband requests custody of Jane and in response Margaret rushes into a marriage with Walter so as to provide a more stable home environment. It is when Margaret begins to sign her paintings of the children with the extraordinarily large eyes with the last name Keane that Walter begins really pushing the sale of their collective works. Soon, the business is taking off, but not because of Walter's scenic shots of Paris but for Margaret's paintings that strike an emotional chord due to the interpretation of those windows to the soul. Claiming the paintings as his own and telling his wife he's doing so because women painters work doesn't sell, Walter begins a vicious cycle of lies and deceit that create a facade inevitably set to break apart.

This is a fascinating story, to be sure. This film is entertaining, there is no doubt. I enjoyed what I was watching and appreciated how well executed everything was. The look is perfectly aligned with Burton's aesthetic and the colors and settings pop. There isn't really much to complain about here if you go in with low to moderate expectations as Burton's film more or less delivers exactly what you'd expect. I'm not mad about this. I quite enjoyed many elements of what the film had to offer. It's thoughtfulness on the way the time period influences the treatment of its lead female character is a key element while the emphasis on the madness of Waltz's Keane was the one unexpected factor of the film. While Margaret is clearly positioned to be the hero of the piece, as the saying goes, the villain is always more interesting and it almost seems as if Burton can't stray away from wanting to explore Walter in much further depth than his protagonist. Walter was anything but a subtle man, in fact, he was too bombastic for the scheme he was attempting to fill and as his stock and influence grew he only became more and more convinced that what earned him this place among the elite was his own, actual skill. Keane was a Jekyll and Hyde type figure, swaying back and forth between a loving and supporting partner to that of a tyrant, locking Margaret in a room all by herself and requiring she paint as much as she could, sometimes for up to sixteen hours. Our eventual heroine is "painted into a corner" by having agreed to the terms of Walter's attempts to make them rich and famous, but while the film feels it really wants to follow Walter and his exploits as he continues to take advantage of his wife's lack of self-worth, Burton and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski replace their interest in this scheming fraud with an investment in the rise and fall of Margaret's fragile mentality. The pure psychological effects of what Margaret was experiencing during her time with Walter is surely enough to write a college thesis on alone, but in the film it more or less feels like Burton is going through the motions leaving only Adams' performance to add what weight there is to her trials.

Rival art dealer Ruben (Jason Schwartzman) is put off by the explosion of Keane merchandising.
Touching on the performances, it is these that bring about the bigger questions of how much Big Eyes succeeds and fails. Adams, as usual, is perfectly fine because she is perfectly capable of always being intriguing. There is a reassurance in the presence of Amy Adams being in a film, but it also feels like the actress takes the safer bet more times than not. While going from project to project it is becoming more and more clear that Adams picks the films she seems to believe are destined to be financially successful or will garner her awards recognition even if it doesn't do big business at the box office. Adams is an actress where you can see through her performance as in you realize she is acting, but because of the fact not only that she is well-renowned, but because she continually proves to be interesting we go ahead and look past the obvious accent and costumes to see a performance hinged on her emotional connection with the material and that is where Adams thrives. As Margaret Keane, Adams is not looking to reinvent the wheel as she is clearly playing someone very much of the time period and to that regard she strikes a fine balance between the bull headed woman who initially had the guts to leave her husband against the suggestion of societal standards while at the same time submitting herself to the extravagant needs of Walter without a moments notice. Speaking of Walter, it doesn't feel Waltz could be more miscast. In fact, many of the issues I have with the film come from the casting of Waltz alone. After momentous turns in Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained it is hard to imagine Waltz speaking any other language than Tarantino. The Austrian actor has played a handful of other villainous type roles, but he is asked to do so here with a much more subdued objective. We never really get to know Walter despite the film tricking us into thinking we do. We see a lot of the guy in this film and up until the last ten minutes or so we don't buy into a word he spews. Waltz is simply too much of a caricature for his own good in that we almost don't buy him as a typical human being and while Walter was crazy in many regards we never buy Waltz's version as fully human or appealing to the point he would have even landed Margaret in the first place.

In all actuality this is the tragic tale of a man searching to achieve his ambitions without having the skill to match. It is a competently directed piece of cinema that focuses on the bulging eyes that come to define our main characters and in turn focuses on the performance of our actors through those eyes. Art is meant to be personal and it is meant to elevate the given form, not simply to pander to the masses. Big Eyes essentially does both of these things in admirable fashion while still producing a final product that feels less than stellar, but a more reinvigorating test so as to see if Burton can still retain an emotional connection to his work. Burton may not necessarily be going for anything more than simple entertainment here, but it is in certain shot choices and focal points we see a director trying to find his way back to what made his name a brand in the first place. This is not the return to complete form many might have hoped for from the director, but for all its lack of substance and staying power Big Eyes is still a crazily compelling trip through this period in Margaret Keane's life leading up to when she decided what she was worth and how all she sacrificed deserved to be credited to the correct place. While this film doesn't necessarily "elevate" the art form of making films it is a perfect example of the type of movie that falls completely in the middle. Absent of anything pedigreed enough to be considered awards bait yet filled with fine performances, some nuance in its filmmaking and a story so insanely ridiculous it has to be true Big Eyes is destined to remain on the underbelly of Burton's career until one day it is brought out again, evaluated and understood to be nothing more than artists making art about art and in turn becoming inconsequential because of it.