Tim Burton’s Big Eyes falls firmly into the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up camp, which seems appropriate for a director best known for making all kinds of wonderful things up.
In the ’60s, Keane paintings of waiflike children with saucer-sized eyes became all the rage. Creepy and affecting, they were scorned by critics and embraced by people who bought countless cheap posters and prints. The images are familiar even if you’ve never heard the name Keane before; they call to mind everything from those gooey Precious Moments figurines to the Powerpuff Girls to posters of big-eyed cats in adorable predicaments.
But when the Keane star was on the rise, it was attached to the wrong name. Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a conniving would-be artist, convinced his painter wife, Margaret (Amy Adams), that no one would be interested in a woman’s art. They had to claim the paintings as his, he said, and then he appeared to prove it, tirelessly selling the art with an almost brutal charm.
In broad strokes and small details, family drama and art-world slyness, Big Eyes explores how this could happen. Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who also wrote Ed Wood and should clearly be in charge of all Hollywood biopics) neatly balance their tale: We can desperately want Margaret to leave, to stand up for herself, while seeing how Walter built a world that requires him in the spotlight — and how they both lived in a time where Margaret could truly believe she didn’t have much choice.
Waltz puts Walter’s charisma and bluster on slightly too much display; Adams carries herself with a taut uncertainty — confident and straight-backed only in front of an easel. But Big Eyes isn’t just the story of Margaret and Walter; it’s also the story of Margaret and her perceptive, eventually sullen daughter, Jane, to whom Margaret hated lying. Their relationship, though it has less screen time, is no less central. Burton’s shiny, eerie, loving film is earnest and wry, its tone a cinematic reflection of the pop allure and moodiness of Margaret’s paintings.
Margaret Keane was wildly successful, critically loathed and totally unknown at the same time; she was a misunderstood loner whose sincere art was both popular and not for everybody. She’s a perfect Tim Burton character, and he didn’t even have to make her up.