The paintings of Margaret Keane are familiar even to those who have no interest in art whatsoever. You know what they are: those slightly creepy little kids with the cavernous, oversized eyes; kind of like a zombie “It’s A Small World.” They just look like something you’d see in a Tim Burton film. And yet, interestingly enough, those darkly sad eyes are about as Burton-esque as his latest film, Big Eyes, gets.
Which is actually a very good thing: Burton turns it up by toning it down.
I am hard pressed to think of a more conventional film to have ever come from the filmmaker whose highly stylized brand of goth fantasy horror has become a veritable genre. Even Ed Wood, which is to date Burton’s greatest film, is still rooted in a surrealist aesthetic that is, in itself, a supporting character.
Big Eyes is bare bones Burton. With few exceptions, there is little sign of the filmmakers (in?)famously heavy handedness, so much so that when a Burton-esque flourish does appear, it’s almost like a Hitchcock cameo. We’re waiting for it and then … ah HA! There it is! Burton is brave enough to ignore the audience expectation of watching a Burton film … which means that he has made a highly watchable film. Free of the chains that have more or less shackled his films over the past decade (Most egregiously with the vacant Alice in Wonderland … although I am fond of Sweeney Todd‘s callous old heart) … Big Eyes has the look of a grounded Big Fish with all the big business satirization of Ed Wood. The Burton undercurrent of tone and theme is very much present, but he puts stylish shtick aside and focuses on the only effect necessary: the bizarre true story of Margaret Keane.
Without giving away too many spoilers, the story is in essence about female subjugation in mid-century America, and the ability of an oppressed victim to, eventually, learn how to roar like a lioness and conquer captivity. Margaret (Amy Adams) is a timidly-voiced woman with a daughter and a history of falling for the wrong kind of man. She is also a prodigiously talented artist who just can’t seem to make it in the business– it is, after all, the 1950s and she is, after all, a woman. But Margaret falls hard for her second husband, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), whose gregarious charm is powerful enough to make every single person he meets believe exactly what he wants them to believe. (With the delicious exceptions of gallery owner Jason Schwatzman, and the Time‘s art critic Terrence Stamp.) What happens is typical of all manner of seduction: an elaborate web of persuasive lies aimed at systematically making its target do whatever the seducer wishes, masked by the seducer’s colorful and convincing distractions.
Realizing that serious money can in fact be made with Margaret’s paintings, but only with the right kind of marketing, Walter takes ownership of his wife’s paintings, catapulting her work into a mass-produced moneymaking machine. Initially trusting that Walter only wanted to give her work the audience it deserved, Margaret finds herself increasingly powerless; relegated to serving cocktails at big gallery opening nights as Walter flirts and flits about increasingly more powerful social circles. He locks her away in her art studio, the demand for original Walter Keane’s increasing exponentially, and in doing so she becomes a soulless shell of a woman– just like the big, vacant eyes that have made her wealthy. But even Margaret has her limit, and when her daughter’s life becomes jeopardized she leaves Walter flat. She finds religion and with it the self-esteem to give her the balls to take on Walter in court for libel and slander. (Given the fact that Margaret Keane is the name we all know today, and not Walter’s, it’s obvious how the court case turns out.)
The dependably solid Amy Adams is dependably solid as a self-loathing lost soul, struggling to keep breathing in a suffocating relationship. Unfortunately, however, Adams doesn’t stand a chance against the preening, unabashed scenery chewing of the deliriously sociopathic Christoph Waltz. He has only to grin and throw his head back in laughter and everyone else simply fades away. (Which, of course, is the point. Margaret faded away from view for over 15 years.) This is every inch Waltz’s film, he knows it, and he doesn’t miss a single opportunity to flaunt it. Ordinarily, such a performance would come across as eye-rollingly hammy, but Waltz’s character is eye-rollingly hammy, and the audience can’t help but be alternately charmed and alternately appalled by it. (Which, again, is the point.)
The film languishes a bit in its second half, and is perhaps more subdued than one wants from a “Tim Burton” film. But if you think of that name, not as a brand, but as a human being making a film about human beings? You’ll be richly rewarded.
This well-made curiosity with straight-from-the-gut performances is likely to be a middle of the road Oscar contender. It would hardly be surprising for Academy darling Waltz to garner an Oscar nomination for supporting actor, and there might even be a courtesy nomination for production design.
Big Eyes is open now in wide release. For Your Consideration is a new feature that rounds-up and reviews late year entries that will probably hold some Oscar contention.