In the late 1950s and 1960s, San Francisco-based painter Walter Keane gained some fame for his “big eyes” illustrations, instantly-recognizable pieces where the subjects feature the kind of saucer-sized, doe-like eyes that one might identify with Japanese animation.
One of the first commercialized pop artists, his work was mass-produced and sold at supermarkets. Keane made a fortune, but drew heavy criticism from the established art community; The New York Times’ John Canaday called Keane’s paintings “the very definition of tasteless hack work.”
Still, he had his defenders. “I think what Keane has done is terrific,” Andy Warhol told Life Magazine in a quote that opens Big Eyes, the latest film from director Tim Burton. “If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.”
Only problem: Keane didn’t actually paint the “big eyes” characters. The real artist was his wife, Margaret Keane, who sued him years after the couple divorced. In the now-famous case that’s one of the highlights of Burton’s film, the judge ordered each of them to deliver a painting.
It’s a good story, and the important notes are effectively traced in Big Eyes, which follows the relationship between Walter and Margaret starting in the 1950s up through the court case that took place in the mid-1980s.
Amy Adams stars as Margaret, in a grounded performance that just about saves the movie. In the film’s opening scenes, she’s fleeing her ex with daughter Jane (played by Delaney Raye, and in later scenes by Madeleine Arthur) in tow. Margaret is the central figure here, and the film’s dramatic core – why she goes along with her husband’s scheme, and what it does to her – works because of Adams’ quietly layered work.
Winding up in San Francisco, Margaret meets fellow painter Walter (a cartoonish Christoph Waltz) and a whirlwind romance ensues. Walter isn’t the most gifted artist, but he is a gifted self-promoter who showcases his work at a nightclub (Jon Polito plays the owner) and employs gossip columnist Dick Nolan (Danny Huston, who also narrates the film) for further publicity.
When Walter sees that Margaret’s paintings actually make an impression with some of the club-goers, his eyes light up; now, finally, is his chance for the success that he so desperately craves.
Big Eyes is an efficient, entertaining telling of this story, even as it glosses over a number of multiple decades without really getting inside of its characters; Margaret’s later-years conversion into a Jehovah’s Witness is a particular casualty – something that could have been fascinatingly explored is instead merely noted.
The film also takes a rather ambiguous tone towards its characters and their artwork. Oddly, I found the most sympathetic character here to be art critic Canaday, played by Terrence Stamp, who sees the paintings for what they are. Burton was working from a script by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski here, who also wrote the director’s Ed Wood back in 1994.
That film, sez me, was the director’s best movie; Big Eyes is not his worst, but despite the fascinating true-story at hand, it’s one of his least interesting. In both visual and storytelling terms, this is the most straightforward movie that Burton has ever made.