Paleo Retiree writes:
Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes” hit me the way nearly all his post-“Batman” movies have hit me: as having a lot of kooky, fun visuals and as being about two inches deep in dramatic and character terms.
Burton, working from a script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, tells the real-life story of Walter and Margaret Keane, who during the 1950s created and sold thousands of paintings and prints portraying melancholy waifs with huge eyes. The Keane images — which, oldguy that I am, I well remember hanging on the walls of friends’ houses — became beyond-popular, one of the defining, if hard-to-understand-in-retrospect visual elements of the American ’50s. (You can read more about the actual story here and here.) The catch is that, while Walter took the credit for the art, it was Margaret who did all the actual painting. Walter was, in fact, merely the couple’s P.T. Barnum-esque public face.
Burton adorns the film in Necco-Wafer colors and zoomy-swoopy ’50s-modernism shapes, aims for a tone that wobbles back and forth between semi-camp and pretty-realistic, and has some amusing fun with the San Francisco bohemia of the era. And thanks to the did-this-really-happen? (it did!) material and the offbeat visuals, the movie’s a painless sit.
But the film could have been so very much more. Despite his visual gifts and energy, Burton seems to have a very conventional mind when it comes to drama. In this case, it’s hard to imagine how his take on the material could have been any more banal than it is. In Burton’s telling, Margaret is a nice, gifted, pleasant, talented person who — because life in those days was so tough for women, and especially for women artists — had no choice but to accept the crazy, tyrannical Walter’s terms. It’s Feminism Lite: Jobs are near-impossible for women to land, and men are entitled and abusive. So when Margaret finally decides to stake her claim on her creations, the scenes have a dreary, rah-rah, almost “Norma Rae” quality.
I have zero idea what the reality of the Margaret/Walter relationship was, but the reason Burton’s take on it makes for tepidness is that his version of Margaret isn’t dramatically implicated in the movie’s central scheme. As we talked the movie over, and working with nothing but what the movie itself had shown us, the Question Lady and I quickly cooked up two different and (I think) more compelling takes on the material. 1) Margaret was an ambitious artist willing to put up with her husband in order to put her talents over. 2) Margaret liked the money and success just as much as Walter did, and turned on him only when things got personally impossible between the two of them. But what about the unlikely-seeming-to-us case that Margaret really was nothing but a passive victim of her husband’s nefariousness? In that case, why not tell the tale as a great, unlikely yarn — a kind of defiant-and-triumphant (in an ironic sense) “GoodFellas” of the art world? Instead, Burton gives us something that a unimaginative TV producer in the 1990s might have been willing to sign off on.
The Margaret character is so dramatically undernourished that poor Amy Adams — who has a nice responsiveness and an amusing Doris-Day’s-quieter-sister look — is left with little to play other than misgivings, hesitancy, a dim sense that what her husband is up to is Not Right, and a need to look out for her child. Meanwhile the Walter character drives ALL the action. Christoph Waltz goes to town with his performance, and good for him for being so relentlessly balls-out. But — and I don’t know whether this is Burton’s fault or Waltz’s — it was a serious problem for me that the Walter character comes across as a clown and a huckster right from the start. Over and over again it’s hard to believe no one, Margaret included, is seeing through his used-car-salesman-style lies and sleaziness.
And what’s dramatically at stake in the movie anyway? At least in his semi-similar (and more enjoyable) film about the legendarily talent-free filmmaker Ed Wood, Jr., Burton gave viewers something they could talk about after seeing the film. Wood may have been inept, but by god he had vision and drive — he really lived his art. And in the arts, aren’t vision and drive at least as important as talent? Watching “Big Eyes,” I couldn’t tell what Burton’s view of Margaret’s paintings is. Is the Keane art schlock? Populist genius? Spookily wonderful outsider art? The questions are raised and then run away from. Margaret herself has a weekend-painter-type knack, but otherwise doesn’t seem to have much art-making drive. In the end we’re just supposed to feel good that that nice Margaret Keane finally got credit for the pictures she painted.