Tim Burton's latest movie was not a major film as many of his movies are. Typically Burton's delightfully grim and eccentric styled movies are a big deal for studios; advertisements and merchandise flood stores and media outlets. As was the case with Big Fish, when Burton does something outside of his usual highly stylized fare, we are privileged to see something that is interesting to watch and often beautiful. Given his art style, I could see what drew Burton to the true story of Margaret Keane in Big Eyes (2014), and I can tell that he handled this story with care and affection for the 1960's painter's work.
We first see Margaret (Amy Adams) packing her young daughter and a couple of suitcases into a gigantic tail-finned car and driving to San Francisco, fleeing from her marriage and determined to start a new life. Margaret meets Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) at an outdoor art fair, and before she even know what's happening they are dating and then getting married. Margaret paints children with huge distorted eyes, and Walter paints Parisian street scenes; neither of them fit in with the trend of bohemian modern-art-obsessed 1960's San Francisco. Walter talks big and is a born promoter. He convinces a local jazz club to allow the two of them to hang their paintings along the hallway. When someone expresses interest in the big-eyed paining, Walter takes credit for the work, hoping to lead to a sale. It seemed harmless at first, perhaps a misunderstanding. But when Margaret's work takes off, leaving Walter's work totally ignored, it happens again. Walter tells his wife that nobody would be interested in buying stuff from "lady painters," and that she's not good at talking about her own work or trying to sell it. Besides, what does it matter if people think he painted it as long as the two of them keep making money? Margaret agrees to perpetuate the fraud, although it makes her uneasy and unhappy.
Tim Burton's signature art style frequently features spindly characters with huge sunken eyes. Margaret Keane's paintings feature children who, while not necessarily spindly, have enormous eyes that portray a great deal of emotion. Juxtaposed, I could see some similarities in structural design of the figures, even if they are sharply contrasted tonally. Burton would have been a young boy during the 1960's when Keane's art was popular, and I can't help but wonder if Keane's big eyed art style influenced Burton's style on some level. The similarity, loose as it might be, could be what drew Burton to Keane's story.
As was the case in Big Fish, Burton allows himself to shine as a director when he intentionally moves away from his surreal stylized films which are riddled with hard angles, spirals, stripes, and animated characters that defy structural integrity. I certainly have a fondness for that style, and it certainly sells well (especially in Hot Topic merchandise). But it's virtually absent in Big Eyes. The one and only scene that hints at "Tim-Burton-ism" is when Margaret, riddled with guilt and indecision, is at a grocery store and every customer stares mournfully at her with hugely exaggerated eyes. Even this is not a particularly "loud" scene visually; Burton really sticks to telling the story respectfully without fuss or fanfare. Though his usual brilliant command of color pallets manifests itself in some well constructed shots.
I absolutely love Amy Adams. She looks very different with the light blond bouffant hair that was typical of the 50's and 60's rather than her usual deep red hair. Adams has played many different types of roles with an outstanding display of skill, and she doesn't let us down here, either. She gives a meticulous performance full of subtlety as a shy woman who is unaccustomed to standing up for herself; her dawning realization of her own inner strength holds the movie aloft. It's a beautiful and emotional piece of work on her part.
I don't recall seeing Christoph Waltz before, but he's been in some major motion pictures. Here he plays a character with ambition mixed with a smilingly callous approach to getting what he wants. Waltz exudes this slimy aura that portrays that he is sketchy and up to no good. On the one hand, he is the antagonist, but he also delivers a lot of the humor in the movie. Waltz amps up the villain role with such relish that eventually he has nowhere to go but caricature. He's funny sometimes, and downright scary at other times. Walter isn't a very deep, but that shallow superficiality is the point of this particular character. During the dramatic climax, we have come to a point that we want every ill to befall this Walter while still laughing at his ridiculous antics.
I enjoyed Big Eyes. It's entertaining. It was not the best film of the year, and not Burton's greatest work. I did not feel as moved as I was with Big Fish. But it is well-acted, thought-provoking, and a refreshing change of pace for Tim Burton. There's a feminist undercurrent that is going to resonate with viewers which makes Big Eyes works as a biopic and a relevant piece of social commentary. I recommend seeing this movie; it's good, but not great. You'll be safe waiting for this on home video.