Directed by Tim Burton
Big Eyes is Ed Wood-lite, another dramatization of a true story about an artist with varying degrees of success. In the former Tim Burton movie, Ed Wood was a director of unmistakably bad movies, though undeterred by each subsequent success. He remained an optimist through and through. In Big Eyes the protagonist is Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), a painter who receives no credit for her work, a series of unique, big eye’d portraits of children. Her husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz) is the one to steal her paintings from her, sharing the profits but taking all the credit.
I found the most interesting part of the story, albeit one that is underdeveloped, to be that many people don’t actually think the portraits are any good. The movie opens with a quote by Andy Warhol, saying that they must be good, perhaps sarcastically, simply because so many people like them.
Only two characters in the film, a gallery owner and art critic, are dismissive of the paintings, but they are mostly ignored in favor of people who embody the celebratory fervor over the portraits.
The story follows Margaret as she leaves her husband and suburbia in 1950’s Northern California to head to San Francisco to find some peace and fulfillment for herself and for her daughter. There she will quickly meet Walter and get married, in the same amount of time it took her friend (Krysten Ritter) to go on two dates.
The marriage happens so quickly that of course there will be an expected fallout. Both Walter and Margaret are struggling artists, and he’s vigilant in trying to expose them to the world, but when someone mistakes one of her portraits for his work, he goes with it because this narrative will help sell the piece. Soon the lie gets out of hand, and Margaret herself becomes complicit in it, led to do so because of fear and intimidation tactics on the part of her husband.
Walter insists that no one would buy her works, at least not for the same price, were she to reveal herself as the artist. The value of the pieces comes as much from the alleged story behind them as from the visual quality of the works themselves. In this case it’s the embellished story about a fight between Walter and a nightclub owner that helped sensationalize the portraits.
We start to move through the years as Margaret becomes a prisoner in her own expanding home. She paints in secret, with Walter hovering over her, and she lies even to her own daughter. Slowly this will eat away at her, and while Adams does a good job selling Margaret’s inner torment, the story feels far too predictable, neat and broad.
After a divorce she will claim credit for the paintings and take Walter to court. In the third act he keeps expanding until he’s a cartoon caricature of a real person, eagerly embracing all of the villainous tropes of a B movie antagonist. No matter how real this may have been (including a comical paint-off in a courtroom) it falls a bit flat here, and because Christophe Waltz’ character is so big and broad, it really gives Adams nothing to do but sit there and alternately look concerned and satisfied.
Ed Wood worked because it’s a weird, affectionate movie. Even when the characters are a bit larger than life, there is something grounding them. In Big Eyes, while Margaret is an easy character to root for, the whole conflict and antagonistic forces feel contrived. It’s frustrating because it’s so clean, as far as narrative movie structure goes, and there is absolutely nothing redeeming about Walter. It’s not that there needs to be anything to redeem him, but I find that anytime the opposition is regarded with such broad characteristics, I immediately get the feeling that there’s something we’re not seeing, a side of this story being left on the cutting room floor.
If Walter Keane really was that devious, then there is surely more to explore within his character rather than just making him a cliche bad guy. This isn’t the first time he’s claimed works of art as his own, and it probably won’t be the last, based on what we see in the story. So it just seems as though there’s more to explore. How deep do his lies go? Is it all from a place of what he considered kindness? At the start, after all, he wanted to give Margaret credit, and he was working hard to sell both of their works. He even tells a gallery owner (played by the underused Jason Schwartzman) that these strange big eyed portraits are from his wife, and then even as he takes credit for them and grows world famous, the gallery owner is never heard from again. You’d think this was established as a loose thread, but it’s a loaded gun which just never goes off.
Walter Keane has a lot in common with Antonio Salieri, the main character of the 1984 film Amadeus. He’s a musician who has promised god his celibacy in order to become a great musician. Despite some success, however, he meets a younger, more talented, more unhinged artist (who gets the women) named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He is envious of the young man no matter how awestruck he is by his talent.
Walter is a Salieri figure, one who thinks he can appreciate “good” art and seems to appreciate his wife’s. Then, when presented an opportunity to capitalize on this, he takes it. Not only that, he sells out to the max, making photocopies of the portraits, then making post cards with those photocopies, all in the name of a good profit. In other words we watch Walter’s soul erode, somewhere within the runtime of the film, but it is never explored, just insisted to us. There’s an arc there, and while it doesn’t need to become the A plot of the film, I think it’s worth digging into.
The other fascinating component of the story is that so many people think the paintings aren’t any good. If anything this makes Margaret even more of a sympathetic figure, much like Ed Wood, someone whose art isn’t defined by commercial success but a more wholesome need to express something. It’s touched upon within the film, but again it felt like there was a whole ocean left unexplored.
Up Next: JFK (1991), Quiz Show (1994), Big Fish (2003)