We’ve all seen those big-eyed paintings by Margaret Keane, portraits of angelic-looking waifs who can seem plaintive in a freakish, greeting card sort of way. They’re children with the eyes of bewildered Pekingese puppies.
Leave it to director Tim Burton to bring Keane’s story to the screen. Big Eyes is a fairly straightforward (for Burton) look at the woman who created those paintings and the husband who, for the longest time, took credit for them.
PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
In addition to the terrific art direction and production design that have defined Burton’s best films, Big Eyes features a wonderful comic performance from Amy Adams as Keane, a woman who looks less like a painter than the hostess of a Tupperware party, a near-archetypical ’50s figure.
Burton also obtains a fine performance from Christoph Waltz, who plays Keane’s rapacious second husband, Walter.
The movie tells us that Walter Keane passed himself off as a painter and took credit for the big-eye paintings, which (shockingly) caught on and began selling for major money.
Although both Keanes profited financially from Margaret’s paintings, Walter received most of the credit and adulation. Beneath the movie’s slightly goofy surface, you’ll find real issues about authorship and exploitation.
Working in a small studio, Margaret became a kind of piece worker, turning out big-eye paintings as fast as Walter could sell them.
The big-eye paintings began to catch on after Enrico Banducci (Jon Polito), the owner of the “hungry i” nightclub in San Francisco, agreed to show some of the paintings. He hung them in a hallway en route to the rest rooms, but they were discovered anyway.
Walter Keane’s deception quickly took on a life of its own. He began to feel as if he really had made the paintings. Eventually, Margaret’s work was shown in the Keane Gallery, which Walter opened.
Those who fawned over the paintings also fawned over Walter. He loved the attention, something he never could achieve on his own. He also was helped by a San Francisco columnist (Danny Huston), who lavished ink on the eager Keane.
As it turns out, Walter’s genius involved marketing and sales. He didn’t make the paintings, but he helped Keane become famous, and he knew how to convince people to open their wallets.
In movies such as Burton’s look at no-budget filmmaker Ed Wood, the director proved that he had a talent for portraying the lives of oddball figures who live on the margins of creativity. No surprise, then, that he’s in fine form in this sideshow of an arena.
The plot leads both Keanes into a courtroom, where (in a pathetic attempt at defending himself), Walter serves as his own attorney.
Burton misses few chances to add offbeat humor, but he doesn’t turn either character into a total joke, even after New York Times critic John Canaday (Terrence Stamp) denounces the work as spectacularly unworthy.
I don’t know whether Burton has tapped into something essential about American life or simply has introduced us to a small and very odd bit of Americana.
Whatever he’s done, Big Eyes makes for an amusingly offbeat time at the movies.