‘Big Eyes’ Review: Tim Burton’s Most Personal Film In Years

Big Eyes Movie

The Weinstein Company

Twenty years after Tim Burton’s greatest achievement, Ed Wood, he’s teamed up once again with screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszwewski to tell Margaret Keane’s story. Keane’s art was hugely popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Her bold, beautiful and beloved paintings of sad big-eyed children were even sold at hardware stores and gas stations. The problem was, she didn’t receive any credit for them.

Her failed artist of a husband, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), took credit for her work. He claimed nobody would buy the paintings if they knew they were painted by a woman, so why not instead make a boatload of cash passing them off as his own? The initially timid Margaret (played soulfully by Amy Adams) went along with his story – that he’s the real artist, not her. Walter became consumed by the wealth and acclaim, while the lie ate away at Margaret and, at one point, greatly upset her daughter Jane (Madeleine Arthur), a major inspiration for Margaret’s work.

The story grows progressively sadder and stranger. When Margaret finally does stand up for herself, Walter reacts in frightening and ridiculous ways. Most of her husband’s manipulation is played for laughs, but it never detracts from the drama of Margaret’s situation. Alexander and Karaszwewski’s script pulls off a real tonal challenge in that regard. Even when events take an exceptionally silly turn in the third act, the film manages to earn both the huge laughs and emotional catharsis.

Like Ed Wood, Big Eyes is often outrageous but totally human. We understand what drives Walter’s cartoonish antics: he won’t accept the fact he’s a failure. At first glance, it’s easy to ask, “Why would Margaret let Walter take advantage of her like that?” Some will dismiss her as weak, but a part of the reason for her acquiescence is the time she was living in. Many people, including a priest, tell her to support her husband because he’s the man of the house.

Margaret lets Walter walk all over her. It’s sad she let it go on for 10 years, but that mistake is what makes Margaret a great character. She struggles with guilt, with the lie she’s helped tell the public and her daughter. Adams more than convincingly internalizes this conflict. It’s fitting this is a movie about an artist who believes the eyes are the window into a person’s soul, because Adams’ performance fully reinforces that belief. The rejection, joy and pain she experiences is all in the pupils. Since she’s playing a reserved character, the eyes are where Adams’ performance lives and breathes.

Although Margaret is surrounded by some huge personalities, not for a second is she overshadowed in her own story. If there’s one real problem with Big Eyes, it’s that some of those colorful supporting characters are sometimes shortchanged. Krysten Ritter, playing Margaret’s best friend, sadly disappears close to the third act.

As for Burton’s direction, he stays true to Margaret’s personality. This is unquestionably a Tim Burton film, but not since Ed Wood has his hand as a filmmaker been less intrusively obvious. His voice is more prevalent in the film’s humor, the themes and the wearily isolated protagonist. This is the most personal story he’s told in years, and while it’s no news flash Burton typically follows loners, it’s likely not a coincidence that three of his finest films – Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands and now Big Eyes – focus on artists.

The film’s most powerful moments generally involve Margaret discussing what her paintings mean to her. Burton understands her desire, ambition and, most interestingly, the response her work draws. Even though the filmmaker didn’t write the script, when there’s an exchange involving an uptight art critic played by Terence Stamp regarding style vs. kitsch, it appears Burton is both confronting and poking fun at the debate that so often surrounds his pictures. Big Eyes, however, is interested in anything but kitsch. There is plenty of eye candy in this vibrant period piece, but Burton serves up so much more.

This film’s villain is someone who expresses adoration for the lowest common denominator, believing that America is built on it. Unlike Walter Keane, Big Eyes does not pander to that audience. Anyone who wants easy answers as to why Margaret didn’t speak up sooner won’t get one. Her complicated journey will go down smoothly, thanks to a mostly playful tone, but Big Eyes doesn’t shy away from important questions. It’s a thoughtful, funny and often complexly lovely film.

The Upside: Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz are wonderful together; Burton successfully returns to Ed Wood territory; pulls off many tonal and structural challenges; Danny Elfman’s elegant score; has put Madeleine Arthur on our radar

The Downside: It could’ve used more of Krysten Ritter and Jason Schwartzman; Danny Huston, playing a journalist, occasionally offers up some redundant information via voiceover; a song from Lana Del Rey is slightly out of place

On The Side: Six years ago Thomas Haden Church and Kate Hudson were set to star in Big Eyes.

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Big Eyes hits theaters Christmas Day.