Big Eyes is what Tim Burton needed to make. He hasn’t made a great movie since 2003’s Big Fish and hasn’t even made a passable movie since his adaptation of Sweeney Todd.
It’s easy to see why he was attracted to the Keane story. Like Margaret Keane, he made a fortune by lying about his talents. But also like Margaret Keane, he was frustrated by his circumstances and wanted to demonstrate to audiences why he was special in the first place.
It makes the first two acts of Big Eyes to be great examples of honest filmmaking. While watching it, I was reminded of the works of Douglas Sirk. Sirk, you’ll recall, spent his time in America exposing the limitations of the 1950s and the way that women would not find happiness as housewives. This is so blatantly obvious now, but at the time Sirk was a revolutionary.
Big Eyes works by exploring those themes in a way that will connect with everyone who has grown up post first wave feminism. Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) is a talented artist who paints her ingenue subjects (mostly variations of her own daughter) as big eyed ingenues. This image resonated with a post war audience who found innocence in a world that was defined by paranoia and strict social constraints.
But those same social constraints deeply affected the artist. Margaret met a man named Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) who painted street scenes from his time in Paris. They marry and he displays the two people’s works in restaurants. When his wife’s work becomes more popular, he begins to take credit for it. Margaret goes along with the scheme because of the money their raking in, but Walter becomes more obsessed with saving “his” reputation and starts to abuse Margaret when her work isn’t “good enough.”
These first two acts are great. Burton’s usual visual flair is kept to a minimum. With the exception of certain dream sequences where the people have the big eyes Margaret paints, there are practically no special effects.
Burton also uses none of his stock players. This allows him to experiment with new performances. Waltz is well cast as the slimy Walter Keane. He has a talent for playing characters like that, at least for an American audience. Unlike Hans Landa, though, the cracks begin to show in his personality as his lies keep piling up. He can appear smart at parties but in private he is truly a terrible man.
But Amy Adams is the person who challenges herself the most. With her daughter, she is meek and unable to claim the spotlight that comes so easily to Walter. It’s easy to see why she would go along with the scheme, which would be the hardest thing for today’s audiences to accept.
That’s probably the biggest thing Big Eyes had to overcome. Such a film would be easy for people to emotionally connect to. We would sympathize with Margaret, but we would not understand her plight from a modern perspective. Why would any woman allow a man to walk over her in the way Walter does? Why doesn’t she fight back? Big Eyes solves this by being less about feminism and more about what artists go through when they sell out. Margaret lives a life of luxury and does, at times, seem happy. Her concern is lying to her daughter, which she is told (by a priest, no less) is not necessarily the wrong thing to do when situations are complicated. And after all, this is what her husband wants.
Most people lose interest in an artist when they make it big. I’ve stopped counting the number of times a hipster yells at a band for daring to make the Billboard charts. But on the other hand, is the band happy with that? I think Big Eyes is the first film to really explore that side of an artists’ work. Most films unveil the big masterpiece as the finale, but Big Eyes starts there and works up.
And it does so without ever boring us. Does a film about painting sound even remotely watchable? Big Eyes is. We move effortlessly from Walter selling paintings on the wall to opening his own gallery. (Across from a gallery owned by Jason Schwartzman, whose only role in the film is to click his tongue and condemn the Keane paintings as low art.) And, in one of the best cuts, we see him creating a story about what inspires him to painting the kids – only to seem him recite the same stories on television as women tear up. Even the transformation of Walter into an abusive monster is done well. It builds up to the moment where he threatens to kill Margaret. Most films do so only when it’s convenient to the plot. It almost feels like a thriller in the way its paced.
So, we have great performances, smart themes, and a quick pacing that makes a seemingly unfilmable topic to be very cinematic. I was about ready to retroactively declare it one of the years best films.
And then we get to the third act and the film stumbles.
The movie ends with a courtroom scene. A courtroom scene outside a legal drama is a desperate narrative move. The scene is almost too cartoonish to be taken seriously. I can summarize what happens with this New Yorker cartoon:
And it gets even more over the top when the judge orders to the two to paint a picture in order to demonstrate who created the works. Yes, I’m aware this is what really happened, but it doesn’t feel right with the tone that has been set. The film is not a comedy and never really has aspirations to be one. This just makes the ending feel like a bad joke, even though we do get a sense of justice from it when Walter chickens out of the painting competition. It’s still a bad move for a film that had been doing almost everything correctly.
So, Big Eyes is flawed. But, I’m pleased it exists. It demonstrates that people can learn from their mistakes and take steps to correct them. Tim Burton realized, like Margaret Keane, that he can make untold amounts of money by lying about his talents. And like Keane, he’s finally leveling with us.