By Preston Wilder
The painting is signed ‘KEANE’. It’s a painting of a thin, waif-like child with impossibly big eyes – eyes “like big stale jellybeans,” as someone puts it – and the painter’s signature is that one word, ‘KEANE’. Keane is Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), the most successful painter in the world in the 1960s, his kitschy big-eyed waifs having sold in the millions – but it could also refer to Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), Walter’s wife, who stayed in the shadows but was actually the true artist behind the ‘big eyes’, her husband’s fame being just an elaborate lie.
That bizarre true story is told by director Tim Burton, whose interest in stylised kitsch goes all the way back to his first film, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, 30 years ago. Burton fans may regard it as a missed opportunity – because the director has a flair for the weird and macabre, and Keane’s work certainly qualifies: the big-eyed motif is creepy, suggesting mutants or monsters (music fans of a certain age may recall Soundgarden’s ‘Black Hole Sun’ video, or the cover of Beautiful Freak by the Eels). Yet, with a couple of exceptions – notably a scene where guilt-ridden Margaret imagines big eyes on everyone around her at the supermarket – the film doesn’t really explore those spooky undertones, even when Margaret’s being driven mad by the secret she’s forced to keep.
In fact, this is less a Burton film than a film by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the duo who wrote the script – and collaborated with Burton exactly once before, in Ed Wood (1994). Like that film, Big Eyes is explicitly about ‘bad’ art, Keane’s paintings as reviled by arbiters and tastemakers as they were popular with the public; Art like this “is why society needs critics,” sniffs imperious art critic John Canaday (Terence Stamp). Like Ed Wood, the film doesn’t really delve into its protagonist’s head; also like Ed Wood, the tone is creatively erratic, often veering into outright comedy. Walter is a broadly-drawn character – made even broader in Waltz’s hammy performance – going from oppressive ogre in the third act (when he’s practically holding Maggie prisoner in their opulent mansion) to ridiculous buffoon in the courtroom scenes.
Ed Wood worked, because its hero – Johnny Depp as the worst director in the world – made his terrible movies with exuberance, and that exuberance was infectious. Big Eyes doesn’t work so well, because the story’s darker (the ‘big eyes’ are painted in anguish, not exuberance) and the film doesn’t really do it justice. Its skin-deep view of Margaret is especially inadequate. Why was this woman compelled to draw the same monstrous figures, again and again and again? Eyes are “how I express my emotions,” she explains – and that’s surely part of the story, that the ‘big eyes’ paintings worked as emotion, not art. That’s why punters bought posters and reprints as well as the originals: “Folks don’t care if it’s a copy, they just want art that touches them”. The film hints that Margaret is quite a simple person, or perhaps it’s kinder to say that she gets swept away – by numerology or Jehovah’s Witnesses, or indeed Walter’s charm – but it can’t do more than hint (the real woman is still alive, for one thing), and doesn’t supply much insight otherwise.
Big Eyes falls short in many ways – yet the plot grips, both as feminist fable from a time when women had fewer rights (“Your husband approves of you working?” Margaret is asked when she goes for a job interview) and simply as relationship drama. Walter’s a loudmouth and a failed painter, but not an evil person; when he takes credit for the paintings, it’s initially a misunderstanding – but he grows to like it, and the lie becomes too big to admit. Meanwhile our heroine stays home, racked by guilt (going to confession doesn’t help), increasingly entombed in the big house bought by her paintings – Burton’s visual eye revels in the 60s stonework and garish shimmer of lava lamps – retreating to her studio where she toils without credit, surrounded by creepy big-eyed waifs on all sides.
“Art should elevate, not pander,” intones the critic; Big Eyes is somewhere in between, too entertaining to pander – it’s light-hearted rather than preachy – but too superficial to elevate. There’s a much better film to be made from this story, but I didn’t really mind. It’s no spoiler to reveal that Margaret ends up taking control of her creations (or we’d never have known the truth), and it makes for a splendid denouement. As for what made her tick in the first place … well, like she says, “Art is personal!”. Fair enough.
DIRECTED BY Tim Burton
STARRING Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston
US 2014 106 mins