Tim Burton tries to tell a Douglas Sirk story with Big Eyes, to mixed results.
Based on the real-life kitsch painting empire of the 1960s run by Margaret and Walter Keane, the movie envisions Margaret as an oppressed, pre-feminist figure, much like those of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life. Given that Walter Keane marketed Margaret’s successful paintings of big-eyed waifs as his own work, this makes thematic sense. But I don’t know that Burton’s gothic whimsy is the right touch for a story that cries out – in both setting and narrative – for something more akin to melodrama.
The cast, meanwhile, plays it both ways. As Walter, Christoph Waltz goes big, luxuriating in comic, con-man charisma at the start before going all the way to Jack Nicholson, “Here’s Johnny” territory in the climax. Amy Adams, as Margaret, takes the melodramatic route, and placed in the context of Waltz’s hamming, her trademark, brittle determination has never seemed flimsier.
Adams’ trademark, brittle determination has never seemed flimsier.
The movie’s best moment is its Burtoniest. Margaret’s portraits (under Walter’s name) become so popular that they’re soon being sold everywhere, and one day Margaret encounters a display of them in the supermarket aisle. (Burton’s clever mise en scene equates them with the boxes of identical domestic products lining the shelves.) Confused, guilty and angry (anything but proud), Margaret rushes out of the store in a flurry, noticing as she goes by that all the people watching her have grotesquely engorged eyes.
This question of the artistic value of Margaret’s work is only lightly touched upon by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s screenplay (the pair also wrote Burton’s Ed Wood). There is an elitist art critic (Terence Stamp) who declares her work to be trash from the outset, but the movie confuses his aesthetic objections with the authorship question, especially towards the climax. That Margaret Keane deserved credit for her paintings is indisputable. Did she deserve praise for them? That’s perhaps a more intriguing question, one Big Eyes isn’t as interested in exploring.