“Big Eyes” may not be Tim Burton’s absolute worst movie — we’ll always have “Planet of the Apes” — but it’s pretty close to the bottom. It’s also the film that reveals his weaknesses as a director and, by their absence, his strengths. Gaudy, shallow, shrill, smug, the movie proves beyond a whisker of doubt that Burton has little interest in human beings unless they can be reduced to cartoons.
It’s the story of Walter and Margaret Keane, or a winking kitsch version of same. Walter became famous in the early 1960s for painting waifish children with enormous, pleading eyes; initially available only on canvas and then in inexpensive poster reproductions, the paintings sold millions of copies, even as the fine-art elite dismissed them as sentimental trash.
In 1970, Margaret Keane dropped a bombshell: She, not Walter, had painted every one of the Big Eyes, and he had locked her in a closet of psychological abuse for years while taking credit for her work. By 1986, the two were facing off against each other in a Honolulu courtroom, where a judge ordered them each to produce a painting on the spot. Margaret finished hers in 53 minutes. Walter declined, citing a sore shoulder.
It’s a good, ripe story about greed, self-expression, emotional bullying, and the public’s taste for schlock — and Burton, working from a script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, highlights every obvious point while steering clear of the subtleties. As you’d expect, “Big Eyes” is heavily stylized, and the sets, costumes, and props all vibrate with a high-’60s plastic sheen. The colors pop. The characters pop louder. Christoph Waltz, as Walter Keane, pops loudest of all.
It’s a truly irritating performance, both intentionally and un. Walter meets Margaret (Amy Adams) when the divorced single mother of a little girl (Delaney Raye in the early scenes, Madeleine Arthur later on) sets up her easel next to his at a San Francisco art fair in the park. Walter, a WWII veteran who claims to have spent his post-war years painting in Paris, is taken with the gentle, slightly eerie Margaret, wooing and marrying her in short order. His own paintings are dull and may not even be his; his real art is hustling, and Waltz plays him as a man always selling himself with a Big Bad Wolf smile and an aggravating line of patter. (The movie never bothers to explain the actor’s Austrian accent; the real Walter Keane was from Nebraska.)
When a potential buyer mistakes one of Margaret’s paintings for his, Walter sees a way to make money and become a star, as long as his wife stays in her secret studio, churning out Big Eyes for famous clients. Enlisting a powerful San Francisco gossip columnist (Danny Huston in a thin role) to plant his name wherever possible, Walter becomes a high-living monster — the braying antithesis of whatever subterranean weirdness is going on in his wife’s art.
“Big Eyes” is ostensibly Margaret’s story, but Waltz ham-and-eggs Adams off the screen. In the process, the movie strands her character without an inner life, a psychology, or anything that would indicate what makes her tick. What secret sorrow made Margaret create her Big Eyes paintings? The film’s just not interested. What might have been, in a way, a female “Ed Wood,” about an artist more committed more to her vision than to taste, is a jokey sideshow about ’60s freaks. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Amy Adams hung out to dry so completely.
Burton indulges himself with a few fantasy scenes in which Margaret hallucinates actual Big Eyes on her daughter and other people. Such moments don’t hook up to anything larger, but they deliver a jolt, much the way Large Marge gave the heebie-jeebies to Burton’s “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” almost 30 years ago. In the decades since that debut, this director’s aesthetic and interests have remained weirdly unchanged, rarely moving beyond the island of misfit boys on which he sees himself. Give Burton a group of stop-motion puppets or Johnny Depp in white pancake makeup, and he can create whimsies to worm their bittersweet way into your soul. Ask him to make a movie about people, and he chokes.
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