If you remember the ’60s and ’70s, you’ve no doubt seen plenty of Margaret Keane’s paintings, with their sad-eyed waifs staring out of the canvas.
For years, her husband, Walter, took credit for her work, and she eventually had to take him to court to reveal the truth. Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes” gives Margaret the credit she’s due, but in a way that feels strangely muted.
Burton starts the film in 1958, when Margaret (Amy Adams) leaves her suffocating suburban life and settles down in San Francisco’s art scene. She’s a single mother with little confidence, so it’s flattering when the older, cosmopolitan Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) takes an interest in her.
Walter is an accomplished painter who once lived in Paris, and he can provide a stable life for Margaret and her daughter, while helping Margaret achieve a success commensurate with her abilities.
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Or so he says. Walter is more huckster than husband, and he starts telling people he’s the one responsible for the popular “big eyes” paintings. It’s just a sales technique, he assures Margaret, and she goes along with it, slaving away in her studio while he smiles and lies his way into millions of dollars.
She pushes back only when his subtle manipulation turns abusive, and by then, she has been complicit in the deception for nearly a decade.
There are plenty of moral knots to untangle in “Big Eyes,” and Adams is especially good at conveying Margaret’s uncertainty. She hates lying and not getting credit for her work, but who can deny the effectiveness of Walter’s strategy? Margaret’s dilemma gives her a power that a stereotypical victim wouldn’t have, and she often butts heads with Waltz’s slick, sleazy Walter.
No one plays charming scumbags like the Austrian Oscar-winner, and he almost makes Walter likable. Not quite — he’s just too unnerving — but almost.
Superficial comparisons have been made between “Big Eyes” and “Ed Wood,” Burton’s other biopic about an unlikely American icon, the infamous bad-movie director. Wood’s story was as much about the weird edges of pop culture as it was about the triumph of the underdog (he was never too triumphant).
The Keanes were a massive success, though, and Burton plays Margaret’s side of the story completely straight. Her paintings have a mesmerizing, faintly creepy quality that you’d expect Burton to celebrate, even while admitting how kitschy they are. Instead, he treats her talent as seriously as he would Georgia O’Keeffe’s.
It’s telling that Burton has toned down some of the more outrageous elements of the Keanes’ story, especially when it comes to Walter’s antics. He’s not the freak hero of this tale, after all, although that might have been fun. By focusing on the most normal person involved, “Big Eyes” may be the first Tim Burton film that just isn’t eccentric enough.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language