‘Big Eyes’ Marks a Return to Form for Tim Burton

Big Eyes movie poster

Tim Burton’s unique talents as a filmmaker have floundered in recent years with his abysmal remakes of “Planet of the Apes” and “Alice in Wonderland” which was lacking in wonder. But with “Big Eyes,” he gives us his best and most human movie in a long time as he examines the life of American artist Margaret Keane whose paintings of children with oversized, doe-like eyes became very popular in the 1950’s. It reunites Burton with his “Ed Wood” screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski who have provided us with some of the most unique biopics in recent memory like “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and “Man on The Moon.” Yes, it is based on a true story, but for once it helps to know this as the movie is a tale which proves there are things much stranger than fiction.

“Big Eyes” starts with a narrator saying the 1950’s was a good time if you were a man. This certainly seems to be the case with Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) as she is in the process of leaving her husband and drive herself and her daughter Jane out to San Francisco to start all over again. This decade had women relegated to the role of housewife, and they could do very little else as feminism had yet to become a movement. Margaret has trouble finding work until she gets a job at a furniture company painting baby cribs. At the same time, she is quite the painter who paints pictures of children, most of which resemble her daughter, that stand out because of the big eyes she gives her subjects.

While at an art sale, Margaret meets Walter (Christoph Waltz), a fellow painter who quickly becomes enamored of her and her paintings, and he quickly begins to encourage her not to sell herself short. They soon fall for one another and get married, and they become determined to sell their art to the masses. When their attempts to get their work hung up at art houses fails, Walter resorts to renting the walls at The Hungry I club owned by Enrico Banducci (Jon Polito). It is there the paintings begin to gain notice, but patrons are far more interested in Margaret’s work than they are in Walter’s. In the process, Walter starts to take credit for his wife’s paintings, and this is where things take a rather interesting turn.

Margaret is repulsed at first by the idea of Walter taking credit for her work, but she finds herself giving in to him as he promises to give her everything she ever wanted in life like a big house to live in. But as the popularity of the paintings grows, a rift forms between them as Margaret ends up residing in the background while Walter takes center stage at various talk shows and public engagements. Soon, Margaret goes from being timid to becoming a very determined person as she aims to reclaim the art she created.

What happened between Margaret and Walter Keane became the story of one of the most epic art frauds in history, and I have to admit I was not aware of this piece of history before I saw “Big Eyes.” If this story were presented to me as fiction, I’m fairly certain I would not have bought it as this story would have been far too bizarre to be the least bit believable. But these events did happen, and Burton’s strong affection for Margaret’s work is definitely on display here.

I’m so glad Alexander and Karaszewski are still getting away with making these renegade biopics about individuals who might otherwise not get cinematic treatment. The fact they brought this particular story to the big screen is extraordinary as it involves an act of plagiarism which didn’t take place in Hollywood. It sounds like a typical good guy/bad guy story, but the way the story develops shows this to not be the case.

Adams is her usually remarkable self as she takes Margaret Keane from the depths of isolation and bitterness to the heights of confidence and self-assertion. She also presents Margaret to us with flaws and all to where we respect her deeply even if some say she put herself in the position of having her work stolen. The 1950’s may have not been the best time for women, but the victory Margaret achieved opened doors for them to where they would never ever be held back by the role society expected them to play.

Waltz won his two Oscars for good reasons as he portrayed his characters in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” with such relish. His performance in “Big Eyes” proves to be equally wonderful as he makes Walter into such a charismatic figure to where it’s no wonder Margaret falls under his spell. While his character is essentially the bad guy of this piece, Waltz does give Walter some empathy as his actions result from a rather unconscious need for approval in a world which has deemed him a fair artist at best. While we can’t condone his actions, we can certainly understand where his motivations come from.

For Burton, “Big Eyes” is a return to the low budget roots he started out in. While it may not feel like the typical Burton movie along the lines of “Beetlejuice,” “Edward Scissorhands” or even “Batman,” it’s certainly his most heartfelt movie in a long time. He recreates the San Francisco many of us know from the 1950’s and 1960’s, and he shows us how Walter succeeded in commercializing art to where it became available at all the local supermarkets. But at the heart of it all, “Big Eyes” fits in with the kind of stories Burton loves to tell; of outsiders who are seen as far too different to succeed in popular culture.

“Big Eyes” falters a little towards the end as Walter starts to come across as less complex and more of a one-dimensional bad guy the audience understandably wants to see go down. Part of me wanted to see Burton delve a little deeper into his psychology as making him the typical bad guy in this movie seemed much too easy. Still, it makes for a very entertaining courtroom scene where both he and Margaret fight for the right to Margaret’s work like never before.

It’s heartening to see Burton give us such a heartfelt motion picture like “Big Eyes” as his last few movies kept taking away from his distinct talent as a director. Even with a lower budget than what he is used to working with, he still gives us a wondrous if roughened up look at an artist caught up in a real-life situation which threatens to rob her of the work she created. Here’s hoping we see more movies like this from Burton in the near future.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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