It’s true: This is the least fantastic film Tim Burton has ever made, with the possible exception of Big Fish (2003). Well, and Ed Wood (1994), but even that was far more stylized than Big Eyes. The PR for this movie has mentioned Ed Wood a lot, partly because it’s a similar biopic of an artist widely considered to be a hack and because Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski wrote both screenplays. The films felt very different to me. Ed Wood is a whimsical portrait of a creative dreamer who doesn’t actually have much talent but who compensates with a sort of innocent belief in himself. Big Eyes is more of a social commentary that draws our attention to the plight of a female artist and single mother in mid-century America who is finagled by a charming manipulator into surrendering control over her art in exchange for security for her daughter and herself. It’s not quite as focused on its protagonist, as it gives equal time to the charming fraud who is her husband.
The question of whether Margaret Keane’s art is kitsch junk or expressive of a sensitive artistic sensibility hovers over the film, and it’s perhaps to Burton’s credit that he doesn’t feel compelled to make a strong case either way. He’s more focused on the issue of social power. Still, he opens the film with a quote from Andy Warhol: “I think what Keane has done is terrific! If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.” It’s a populist view, and Warhol is referenced again in the film itself, when Walter Keane argues that Warhol’s Factory is an imitation of the industrial approach that Keane has taken to promoting and mass-producing the big eyed waifs painted by his wife. One of the structurally awkward aspects of the film is that the two biggest critics of Keane’s work — Jason Schwartzman’s smarmy art dealer and Terence Stamp’s wonderfully imperious and disdainful New York Times art critic — are not well-integrated into the story. They are just naysayers who observe from the sidelines, and their critiques are not given much depth.
Biopics are one of my least favorite film genres, but Big Eyes at least avoids some of the rote aspects, perhaps at the cost of dramatic tension. Actually, one interesting thing about the story is that while Walter is a manipulative jerk, he really does succeed at creating an artistic empire out of his wife’s work, and they go from rags to riches. The cliche that’s avoided is the idea that the riches are a problem. The problem is power, and one of the other interesting twists is that it takes Margaret’s conversion to Jehovah’s Witness for her to find the strength to take Walter on. This bit actually reminded me of another recent biopic about an outsider artist who became an evangelical Christian, The Notorious Bettie Page. Again, Burton doesn’t really punch this too heavily, and a good example of the kind of bemused comedy he achieves is the scene where Margaret’s daughter asks whether Jehovah is okay with suing somebody.
The film is powered by the performances by Amy Adams as Margaret and Christoph Waltz as Walter. Adams is a wonder, implying Margaret’s struggles with self-esteem without overplaying it, and Waltz is an energetic, gleeful figure who almost comes across as a trickster. I’m not sure this will hold up as one of Burton’s best films, but at first glance it at least seems like the best thing he’s done since Sleepy Hollow (1999). It’s an odd little film, and along with the feminist perspective it also gives an insight into the business side of the art world that I found quite fascinating. I really didn’t (and don’t) know that much about Margaret Keane’s career, and I appreciated this window on an eccentric real life figure and the husband who made her famous despite himself.