Big Eyes, Tim Burton’s new film based on the “true events” surrounding Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) and her doe-eyed paintings, opens as Margaret walks out on her marriage with her daughter Jane (Delaney Raye) by her side. Hoping for a fresh start, Margaret succeeds in finding a job as a furniture illustrator and selling her paintings at the markets in San Francisco. Then Margaret meets scenic painter Walter (Christoph Waltz), who will later become her new husband. Focusing on her art, Walter and Margaret form a business partnership. As the dollars grow, Walter saturates galleries with Margaret’s work, and his schmoozing lands Walter haphazardly taking credit for Margaret’s work. This becomes an ongoing lie Walter starts to really believe, leading to much-heated drama.
Apart from documenting the chronological life of Margaret and Walter Keane, Big Eyes looks at art. From Margaret’s perspective, her work tells a story and convincingly represents the core of an artist, but Walter the controller, markets himself and the art in question in the most naïve and gluttonous way. Walter has no artistic credibility and his outlook is, if it’s popular, then it must be ‘art’, happy for reproduced prints of Margaret’s paintings to be sold as long as there is money to be made. This is referenced nicely when Margaret is in a shopping centre filled with Campbell soup tins, which was made popular by post-modern artist Andy Warhol, one of his own examples of mass reproduction in art.
Then there’s the highbrow side of art, such as beatnik gallery owner Ruben (Jason Schwartzman) and art critic for the New York Times John Canaday (Terence Stamp). They both believe that Keane’s work is kitsch and unsuitable in their art scene, but then their attitude is also questionable. The inclusion of Schwartzman and Stamp, although minor, is perfectly executed. Schwartzman does what he does best, a college hipster, and Stamp’s arrogance and bravado is at its finest.
Depending on your expectations of a Burton film, this could be seen as a welcome or not so welcome departure. Seeing a film without the inclusion of Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter, although refreshing, became a signifier that it is not the typical Burton affair. There’s no denying Adams and Waltz play the parts well, but it’s hard to connect without knowing just who Margaret and Walter really are.
Margaret’s passivity and blonde locks create the ultimate victim who chooses the wrong husband and becomes entangled in lies and deceit. Waltz plays the charming gentleman, who is in fact nothing more than an irritating monster. The two characters populate a colourful imagining of the 50s. It’s the type of cinema homage that mostly works, a plastic, pastel suburbia of the late 50s-60s, which is sickly sweet and becomes a metaphor for the film’s fakery. It is also reminiscent of early Burton. But when it boils down to it, and it may seem unfair to say this, Adams and Waltz stood out as caricatures, rather than belonging to Burton’s whimsical world.
All in all, this is an enjoyable piece, well acted, and it does feels like you’ve learnt something along the way. Arguably, this might also be a letdown, knowing that – despite his poorer recent efforts – Burton made Frankenweenie (2012) prior, which demonstrated his love of early cinema and employment of dark and bittersweet themes. Regardless though, any director shouldn’t limit themselves to one genre or style, it’s just that Big Eyes is the sort of film where you wish Burton had stuck with what he does best, as the film feels uncertain of what it wants to achieve.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10