Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Big Eyes is such a tonally odd, thematically different film from Tim Burton’s filmography that it never meshes into a convincing story. Strangely enough, it’s one of Burton’s most ambitious and resoundingly human efforts: based on the true story of artist Margaret Keane and the counterfeit nature of her manipulative husband, the narrative is a film of time and place. In the 1950s, the household dichotomy between men and women constituted a particular place for each. A woman could not be creatively successful but rather should stay at home and take care of the family. That makes for a difficult relationship, then, as Margaret (Amy Adams) is infinitely talented in comparison to her counterparts. When she runs away from home with her daughter and heads to San Francisco to stay with her friend, DeeAnn (Krysten Ritter), she feels like a fish out of water who might be able to find herself along the way. Lo and behold, she discovers art galleries around the area and runs into Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz).
Walter is a charming, infectious man that has a strong taste for art and an even better taste for women. He’s also the only person that appreciates Margaret’s craft, and even works tirelessly to get her stuff in an exhibition. When it finally happens in a grungy-looking jazz bar, it takes a turn for the worst: while Margaret is at home making the paintings, Walter is selling them off as his own, using his charm to convince people that they are his. Whereas his previous art pieces were marked by his trips to France and include populated streets and decorated alleyways, Margaret has a distinct vision. Hers are marked by portraits of faces with huge eyes, since she considers the eyes to be a gateway to the human soul. It’s a fascinating way of looking at life, and her portraits are undeniably beautiful. Whether they are each a unique work of art is another debate entirely, but one thing is certain: they are not Walter’s to sell. Their relationship turns bitter while they become embroiled in a battle for power.
Gender politics play a vital role in understanding Margaret’s susceptibility to such a brutal, indirect crime. It’s a way of further degrading females in a harsh, gendered landscape, and there’s ambition behind Burton’s desire to bring to light a film with such compassion for its central figure. Adams plays her with vivacity and tenderness, bringing forth a strong female oppressed by a twisted society and an even more twisted spouse. Waltz mostly plays his role as a quiet sociopath, allowing the final half hour to bring about every crazy, absurd action possible to underlie his mental instability. That’s where the screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski goes off the walls; I never believed any of the developments in the film’s conclusion for a second. True story narratives really push that boundary when they exaggerate inherent conflict; when a scene crafts Walter to look like Jack Torrance from The Shining, something has gone horribly wrong. Margaret’s departure to Hawaii never meshes with the story’s thematic force, and it loses power. Big Eyes has strong ideas on its plate, but the execution is uneven and grows tiresome.
Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)