“Big Eyes” is now playing at Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema and Sundance. PG-13, 1:44, three stars out of four.
“Big Eyes” is both the least Tim Burton-y film that Tim Burton has ever made and the most Tim Burton-y film he’s ever made. Least, in that the brightly-colored pastel palette of the film doesn’t contain a drop of darkness or CGI trickery. Most, in that it celebrates the life of an outsider artist without worrying about whether the art was actually any good or not.
In this case, the artist Margaret Keane was so outside that nobody knew who she was for years. Keane started a kitschy sensation in the ’60s with her paintings of adorable waifs with comically enormous peepers. “The eyes are the windows to the soul,” she would tell people, but these were living-room bay windows into the soul.
But while Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) created the paintings, she never got credit for them. That went to her husband Walter (Christoph Waltz), a glad-handing amateur painter and professional self-promoter who always claimed that he was the “Keane” behind each painting’s signature. In the film, we see Margaret and Walter meet while in adjoining stalls in an art fair in 1958 San Francisco. The film wonderfully evokes the look of “Vertigo”-era San Francisco, and the slanted streets and brightly-colored buildings look like a fantasy set for a Tim Burton movie.
Walter seems like a genuinely nice guy, and Margaret, a single mother still recovering from her last marriage, is drawn to his kindness and their shared artistic bent. That proves to be a fiction, as with so many other things about Walter. He slowly convinces Margaret that her paintings would have a better shot at selling if he was out there shaking hands and promoting them. And he’s not wrong. She goes along with it at first, and by the time she realizes Walter’s true nature, she’s in too deep. While he’s out gallivanting around the country, shaking hands with dignitaries and posing for magazine covers, she’s at home, all but chained to her easel, cranking out waif after waif.
“Big Eyes” was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who also wrote 1994’s “Ed Wood,” which I think will always remain Burton’s best film. You can see Walter as kind of a dark mirror to B-movie director Ed Wood, whose motto seemed to be that people should do what they love to do, even if they are terrible at it. Walter’s motto seems to be to do what you love to do — even if you aren’t actually doing it.
As Margaret sinks further into self-loathing and depressing, and the controlling Walter becomes more intimidating and even dangerous, “Big Eyes” turns from being something of a zingy comedy into a dark domestic drama. It probably stays in that spot for longer than modern audiences will have patience for — time and again, we wonder why Margaret doesn’t just leave this creep. But Adams, in an affectingly direct and low-key performance, effectively plays a woman beaten down by life. When she finally does break free and fights for the credit she deserves, culminating in a truly nutty courtroom climax that is apparently entirely accurate, the feeling is not one of joy, but of quiet satisfaction.
“Big Eyes” felt more like a made-for-HBO film than a big Christmas Day theatrical release to me, more of a quiet character study than a holiday crowd-pleaser or a piece of obvious Oscar bait. But I kind of liked the way it’s hard to pin down, and after the soulless CGI-fests of “Alice in Wonderland” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” hopefully marks an interesting new turn in Burton’s work. Although I’m still down for “Beetlejuice 2” whenever he is.