Big Eyes is a 2014 movie directed by Tim Burton which, I think, has gone a bit unnoticed. Indeed, at first sight it’s not a classic golden age Burtonian film (Beetlejuice, 1988, Batman, 1989, and Edward scissorhands, 1990), nor it’s one of his movies pertaining to the decadence period (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 2005, Sweeney Todd, 2007, and Alice in Wonderland, 2010). It’s a biographical film about Margaret Keane, an artist famous for her paintings of people with disproportionately big eyes who achieved an incredible success in the Fifties and Sixties.
But let’s start from the plot. Margaret (Amy Adams) takes her daughter Jane (interpreted by both Delaney Raye and Madeleine Arthur) and leaves her husband to go to San Francisco to try her luck as an artist. But life for a separated woman in those years isn’t easy and she only manages to find a job in a furniture factory. She spends her weekends in the park to try to sell her paintings and make portraits for a few pennies. There she meets the affable Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) who successfully sells his paintings of picturesque Parisian streets. A relationship between the two quickly begins and within a few days… they get married! Both with another job (he’s in real estate), their dream is to live thanks to their art.
Walter has the brilliant idea to expose the paintings of both in a jazz club, which leads to a rapid increase in the popularity not so much for the paintings, but rather due to the quarrel between Walter and the owner of the local Enrico Banducci (Jon Polito). But there’s a problem: people only like Margaret’s work, not Walter’s, and since the signature on both is KEANE (they are married!), he doesn’t think twice and claims to be the sole author. That’s how a life based on lies begins in which Walter appears to be a great artist and Margaret unwillingly acts as a “shadow artist”. This leads to a deterioration of the relationship with her daughter Jane, until everything just breaks apart once she finds out that Walter’s lies are not limited to the paintings’ ownership. And here I stop because I don’t want to ruin the finale of the film for those who haven’t seen it already.
What about this movie? If you’re looking for another Ed Wood, forget it. Ed Wood (1994) is perhaps my favorite Burton’s movie, with an incredible story going beyond being the biopic of the worst director in history and becoming a tribute to cinema as a whole. In Big eyes the plot is interesting, of course, and the film deals with absolutely profound themes, but fails to go beyond the story itself. For example, the movie deals with art, but it doesn’t make any memorable commentary on what art really is or means. Moreover, Burton deals with gender violence, not the physical but the psychological type, and also with dreams and what people are willing to do to make them come true. Walter is portrayed as a small man, poor in values and talent, who builds a world of his own in which he eventually ends up believing his own lies. Margaret is a woman who has to live in a hostile world and believes that the answer is to keep her head down and suffer for the good of others, especially her daughter, until she decides that she cannot take it anymore and rebels, showing considerable strength.
The film tells this story very well, with Tim Burton proving once again to be an amazing story teller. The two protagonists are also very good, with an almost unrecognizable Amy Adams (she studied the real Margaret Keane closely before shooting the film – the latter also makes a cameo in the film as an old lady in the park) and Christoph Waltz who’s really at ease in the role of the talkative Walter. But in the end I don’t consider this film among the best of the imaginative American director, whose characteristic touch is evident in some scenes (for example when Margaret works in the furniture factory), but whose direction here is more anonymous than usual. I have the impression that this film will slip away from my memory quickly enough, unlike other Burton’s movies that I know by heart and I like want to rewatch very often!
Anyway, I’m not saying that the movie is cold: Burton is a great collector of paintings by Margaret Keane, so I guess that he threw himself into the project with passion. Simply… it’s a well done film, that’s all, not a masterpiece like many of the director’s previous ones! Ciao!