The Pop Artist and the Con Artist

Big Eyes
(USA, 105 min.)
Dir. Tim Burton, Writ. Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Starring: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwarztman, Danny Huston, Terrence Stamp, Delaney Raye
Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) and Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) in Big Eyes. / eOne Films.
“You can’t make a billion dollar gross unless millions of people are satisfied with a picture,” said producer Richard Zanuck of Tim Burton’s critically lambasted but financially lucrative 2010 fantasy Alice in Wonderland. Burton is no stranger to the tensions of artistic integrity and commercial success, so it’s a wonder to see Big Eyes emerge from a spat of ambitious blockbusters that have the largest scale of the director’s oeuvre, but hold the lower ranks in the wild and wacky world of Tim Burton. Big Eyes marks a turn away from the fantasy tent-pole land of Alice, Dark Shadows, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and back towards the quirky character-driven realm of films like Ed Wood. Big Eyes stars Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz as pop-artist Margaret Keane and her con-artist husband Walter, and the former half of the pair is positively endearing while the latter half is quirky up the wazoo. Big Eyes could have been a return to form for Burton had the director excised every frame of the film featuring Christoph Waltz, but it’s a stroke of genius for Amy Adams.

Waltz, the two-time Oscar winner for Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, is arguably one of the best actors working today, but his usually terrific over-the-top scene-chewing is completely out of whack with the rest of Big Eyes. Sure, Walter’s a larger-than-life character himself, a man prone to flights of grandeur, showboating, and dramatic verboseness, but Burton doesn’t show the same degree of restraint with Walter as he does with the rest of the film. Waltz’s performance overwhelms Big Eyes every second that he appears onscreen as the jealous husband who steals credit from his wife, sells her work under his name, and amasses a lucrative fortune in bizarre-yet-true story about selling out one’s art. Waltz does a lot of hammy mugging, so by the time Big Eyes reaches the three-ring-circus of the Keanes’ reportedly cartoonish legal spat, his performance throws so many “take my wife, please!” hyuck-hyucks that one wonders if this study of pop art history might have been better if painted with a different brush. The cartoonishness detracts from both the emotional and intellectual impact of the film, and makes Big Eyes both unevenly campy and an all-out bastardization of the institution of art—many of the same criticisms with which the film’s cranky critic (Terrence Stamp) charges Walter himself.

Fortunately for Margaret, though, Waltz’s rim-shot baiting tomfoolery ensures that Big Eyes has the audience on Mrs. Keane’s side every second of the way. Adams is characteristically winning as the tortured artist. Her bright doe eyes are as beautiful and as expressive of those of the little waifs with the big blinkers in Margaret’s paintings, and the depth of her performance, the subtle emotional fragility, truly furthers Margaret’s philosophy that eyes are the windows to the soul. As Adams throws herself into Margaret’s passion for her work and conveys the artist’s sense that her paintings are extensions of her being, Big Eyes realizes the relationship that artists have with their work and renders tangible the emotional connections between the artist that the work she produces.

Adams’ commitment to her character’s struggles, pains, weaknesses, and strengths makes Big Eyes an atypically feminist audience-pleaser on the canonization and institution of art, as tensions between Margaret and Walter bring out the gender inequalities of 1950s-60s work-family relationships. Consequently, the divide between the frequently-unrewarded Adams (always a bridesmaid at award shows) and the abundantly-praised Waltz (he’s won more awards than Meryl Streep has in the past five years) adds an interestingly ironic meta-textual layer to Big Eyes as the female star greatly eclipses her male co-star with her depth, versatility, and brilliance.

Big Eyes, driven largely by Adams’ excellent performance, might seem like Burton’s most paint-by-numbers film to date since it contains little of his usual formalism, impressionism, darkness, and cartoonishness (save for Waltz), but the film also surprises from the element of restraint in the direction outside of the male lead. Big Eyes is perhaps the least Tim Burton-y Tim Burton film ever made, yet it’s bright and beautiful thanks to the pop-art canvas that Burton paints with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis) with a vibrant candy floss colour palette. The few Burton markers that do arise, however, are remarkably effective, especially in a dream sequence in which Margaret’s obsession with her work paints big sad eyes on human faces. It’s odd to see so little of the auteur’s signature on a film that explicitly tackles the value of an author’s stamps, but Big Eyes consistently rises to this challenge with the stamp of the film’s true artist: Amy Adams. Her big eyes are the windows to the film’s soul.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Big Eyes is now playing in limited release.

What impression does Big Eyes paint on you?