What’s greatest about Tim Burton’s Big Eyes is that his antagonist, Walter Keane, doesn’t leap right out at us as a bad guy, even though we get the feeling something’s up. He begins as a cordial passer-by who falls in love and conjures a little white lie to make a sale. Then suddenly he is the eloquent founder and proprietor of a wealthy art gallery, living the life in upscale San Francisco. What’s so bad about this? — I hear you ask. What’s the lie? None of the paintings in his gallery are painted by him.
They are painted by Margaret (Amy Adams), a woman whose many gifts do not include self-preservation. With her daughter, she flees her abusive husband and moves to downtown San Fran, where she hopes to start anew in a society run by men.
She catches the eye of Walter (Christoph Waltz), who peddles his Parisian paintings to young dames and sneaks in innuendos like “Go ahead, touch it!”. Walter says Margaret shouldn’t undervalue her talent. He takes her to an expensive restaurant, holds her hand, says what she wants to hear, and marries her in Hawaii a few scenes later. He is the drop of salvation from the basin of heaven.
Of course, we are not convinced. Any man who offers marriage so quickly must have a reason for doing so. Walter’s is obvious, though not to himself. His actions seem to unfold as a result of unconscious ambition. Having little luck finding inspiration with his dames, he tries to sell his street paintings to a gallery of modern art, run by Jason Schwartzman. Parisian streets have no place among abstract brush strokes, he is told, so he tries one better: He offers to sell Margaret’s paintings, of young children with overly large, expressive eyes.
He approaches a night club and asks if he can exhibit their work there. The famous owner (Jon Polito) says no, so he smashes one of Margaret’s pieces over his head. This generates unprecedented popularity for the club, and now suddenly everyone is asking about the guy whose painting tore through the head of a celebrity.
This is still easy, because Margaret has no idea that her husband is using his name to promote her paintings. One day she finds out, but instead of blowing up she recoils and becomes Walter’s live-in masterpiece factory. He holes her up in the attic and forces her to churn out painting after painting. It’s amusing that she never resists. I think it’s because Margaret is like Mozart or Lennon and McCartney — she is so consumed by her passion that it’s all she can do. Indeed, outside of painting, she seems to have little character at all (text at the end informs us that the real Margaret still paints every day).
There is much to observe about Walter. Not so much the performance by Waltz, which is frequently over the top and likes to sink into slapstick, but in what Walter thinks as he lives from day to day. What Waltz accomplishes is a kind of innocence with the role. We admire that the money he earns from the sales of Margaret’s paintings are shared equally between him and his wife. He doesn’t hide money from her, nor does he implement constrictions. She is free to do as she pleases, as long as she supplies him with a reliable conveyor belt of lucrative paintings.
The story of the Keanes is covered by a journalist, Dick Nolan (Danny Huston), who also narrates the film. He says their story is unlike any he’s heard before and gradually befriends the damaged Walter. Angers come to a head and eventually Margaret is filing for divorce and a big lawsuit is underway. It must be said it takes the presiding judge a lot longer than necessary to think of a solution to his ridiculous case, where both Walter and Margaret fight for their rights to Margaret’s paintings like school kids over a lollipop.
Tim Burton’s movies usually boast a taste for the flamboyant, leaving the characters idling in the background. Big Eyes is the opposite; his characters rise to the foreground and live in a world that is designed with subtlety, not imagination. The backdrop is a clean-cut 1950s San Francisco. The costumes are tasty. The dialogue is flat and unobtrusive. What pops are Margaret and Walter, trapped inside boisterous performances from Adams and Waltz. Do we always buy what they say? No. But we observe with a certain amount of interest the things they do, and the pitfalls they seem to be digging for themselves. Big Eyes is certainly not one of Burton’s greats, but it’s sharp and flavourful. It respects its story.
Best Moment | Nope.
Worst Moment | Walter’s impassioned but completely implausible self-representation at the trial.