When Big Eyes was released in theaters, I remember many critics writing that it hardly seemed like a Tim Burton film. I didn’t get to see it until its recent home video release, but I’d argue instead that it’s the quintessential Tim Burton film. Sure, it may not have the typical surreal setting and visual flourishes, but the subject matter is right up his alley. There are moments that are distinctly his; however, they’re remarkably restrained signs of a mature filmmaker exercising self-control. Big Eyes is my favorite Tim Burton film in years.
A signature touch of Burton’s in Big Eyes is when Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), reeling from the fact that her husband Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) has turned her life’s passion into a cottage industry, envisions everyone in a grocery store to have the same big, round eyes as the children in her paintings. It’s creepy, but also extremely funny and effective. Likewise, the climactic courtroom scene is all-Burton and is the only time the otherwise disciplined movie threatens to spin out of control.
Big Eyes is one of those movies that demonstrates truth really is stranger than fiction. After watching it, I immediately wanted to fact check it. Sure enough, a basic internet search identifies Walter Keane as the “American plagiarist who became famous in the 1950s for claiming he had painted a series of widely-reproduced paintings depicting vulnerable waifs with enormous eyes that had actually been painted by his wife Margaret Keane.” My first question before I even saw the movie was why did Margaret allow it to happen?
Big Eyes does a great job of answering that question. It sort of just happened. Margaret was the artist, not the salesman. Sometimes speechless when discussing her work, Walter one day took the lead (and the credit) and before either one of them knew it, the situation had grown bigger than the both of them. What’s vague in the movie, and should probably be, is the degree to which Walter was a con man. Did he set out to steal his wife’s glory or was he as much a victim of the unexpected success of her paintings.
It’s hard to strictly categorize Walter as a bad guy in Big Eyes. He shared profits with his wife and invested in a nice, big house for both of them (and her daughter). To a certain extent, their business was a partnership: she made the product and he marketed it. I guess the difference is that he also claimed credit for the product, which made Margaret feel invisible, sometimes like a slave chained to her easel. Still, it’s nothing that a simple business agreement ahead of time couldn’t have prevented.
I prefer to think that Walter was an opportunist. I don’t think he intended to orchestrate what happened. I’m more inclined to believe he actually thought he’d make his fortune by selling the Parisian street scenes that he also tried to claim as his own. He never seems to mean his wife ill will, even though success brings out the worst in him and he becomes abusive in their relationship. Waltz plays him like a lovable raconteur, even at the end when he’s pitted against her in the courtroom.
I’ve mentioned it twice now and I think it’s because the courtroom scene is problematic for me. First of all, you can’t imagine a real court putting up with Walter’s shenanigans. While the rest of the movie has its funny moments, this sequence is all-out comedy. The tone wasn’t right for me. On the other hand, you know it has to come to this. In fact, when it comes down to his word against hers, there’s only one way to determine a verdict: a paint-off. I wasn’t familiar with the true story, but the fact that it’s what ended up happening made it feel slightly predictable.
Other than me nitpicking its finale, I think Big Eyes is an entertaining and fascinating movie. It may hold more significance for those who grew up in the 60’s or remember seeing one of Keane’s mass market reproductions in a garage sale. The screenplay is sharp and funny; I frequently laughed out loud. Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have some experience with odd biographical tales, having previously written Ed Wood and Man on the Moon. It’s a crazy story… so crazy that it can only be true.