Director: Tim Burton
Stars: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz
2 (out of 5) Globes
The writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (“Ed Wood,” “The People vs. Larry Flynt”) specialize in cheeky biopics that apply a comic, not entirely respectful sheen to a humorless genre. Does that tone work for the story of painter Margaret Keane? It’s a crazy, stranger-than-fiction tale that’s also about prolonged suffering at the hands of a monster who traded in mental (and, at least once, physical) abuse. Margaret (played by Amy Adams) is a single mom in the 1950s who succumbs to one Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a perpetually smiling, glad-handing charmer. First he pressures her into marriage; then he spends decades stealing credit for her paintings, whose melancholic-creepy shtick was they featured sad children with humongous eyes.
The Golden Globes classify “Big Eyes” as a comedy, which seems odd given the deep trauma and suffering running through it. But the tone is somehow broad even at its most serious. As directed by Tim Burton — reuniting with his “Ed Wood” writers — it’s a loud-colored and sometimes just plain loud drama with the camp that some modern audiences see in the hyper-stylized melodramas of Douglas Sirk. Adams is her usual withdrawn self, deflating quietly as she lets a swaggering man walk all over her. Everyone else is a cartoon playing to the rafters: Jason Schwartzman as a snooty art dealer; Krysten Ritter as a single city lady; and Waltz as yet another smiling, domineering villain.
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It’s all played so big that it almost seems black-and-white. One has to step back to see how shaded and torn it really is. Margaret’s victimization is flat and redundant but deeply felt, thanks to Adams’ entirely internalized turn. (The claim, made by Burton and Waltz, that she’s not a victim is baloney; this is a scary portrait of being domineered by an unpredictably temperamental man.) That said, it’s sometimes strangely, productively empathetic towards its monster. Waltz may seem to be doing his shtick, but he’s also someone even better at convincing himself of his actions than he is of convincing others to believe his lies. An aspiring master painter who could never crack the game, his only talents are preying on the weak and his keen, revolutionary business sense. Once Margaret’s paintings prove hits, he brands them, sells them as posters and orders her to churn them as pure product. When he accuses Andy Warhol of ripping him off, he has a case.
That, not Margaret’s plight, is what’s really interesting about “Big Eyes.” There’s a deeply torn study of popularity as a mark of quality running through the film. Margaret’s paintings are disparaged by the cognoscenti, who viewed her much as today’s critics do Thomas Kincade. But there’s a strong, and very weird, artistry to her work; her popularity and ubiquity simply obscure it. Then again, there is a conveyer belt nature to her process; as shown at one point she could bust these things out in the time it took Picasso to finalize two strokes.
And then there’s Burton himself, who too has been accused of turning a very unique, very gloomy style into pure consumerism. Yet unlike Margaret Keane, he’s had trouble, over the last two decades, replicating the “Burton style.” Where Margaret could whip out a Keane on a moment’s notice, Burton can’t for the life of him do another “Beetlejuice.” There’s a kinship with Margaret’s talents running through “Big Eyes,” and a defensiveness when her work is perceived through the narrow filter of their popularity — even if Burton himself can be, and has been, accused of whoring his style out for lesser products. (Let’s not play presumptuous and Psycho 101 here, but no wonder he ran from the high-grossing monstrosity of the deeply unfortunate “Alice in Wonderland” — with Burton as pure brand, not as artist — to a bizarre pet project (the underrated “Dark Shadows”), then to an animation/remake (“Frankenweenie”). Now there’s this, the smallest movie he’s ever made. Underneath the angst of Margaret’s story lies another level of equally uneasy turmoil.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge