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Big Eyes Movie Review

Big Eyes (2014) movie poster Big Eyes

Theatrical Release: December 25, 2014 / Running Time: 105 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Tim Burton / Writers: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski

Cast: Amy Adams (Margaret Keane), Christoph Waltz (Walter Keane), Krysten Ritter (DeeAnn), Jason Schwartzman (Ruben), Danny Huston (Dick Nolan), Terence Stamp (John Canaday), Jon Polito (Enrico Banducci), Madeleine Arthur (Older Jane Keane), Delaney Raye (Young Jane Keane), James Saito (Judge)


For most of 2014, many Oscar pundits assumed that Amy Adams was the frontrunner in the year's Best Actress race. There was the overdue factor: she has been nominated for five Oscars over the past nine years and lost every time.
There was the fact that she had a lead role of substance in a movie scheduled to open on Christmas Day from awards darlings The Weinstein Company. That Adams was playing a real person in a true story was the cherry on top. Everything seemed to align for the 40-year-old whose body of work since her mid-Noughties breakout is stronger than virtually every other actress in that same period of time.

The one detail easily missed was that Big Eyes, the fortuitous project in question, was a Tim Burton film. Though among the best-known of directors, Burton has made hardly anything that competed for major honors. From Batman to Alice in Wonderland, his stylish films have regularly been recognized in technical categories. But Burton isn't known for being an actor's director or a prestige director. Even his most highly regarded films that almost fall in line with Academy tastes, like Big Fish and Sweeney Todd, have largely been snubbed by the Oscars and left to settle for Golden Globe contention. Perhaps that track record accurately conveys Burton's prowess, as a filmmaker whose immense technical gifts often taken precedence over his ability to tell a story.

The least Tim Burtony Tim Burton film since Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Big Eyes does not strike you as one of the director's usual, fanciful productions. The cast includes neither Johnny Depp nor Helena Bonham Carter, the visuals are uncharacteristically sunny and natural, and the subject matter is far from Burton's Gothic wheelhouse.

In Tim Burton's "Big Eyes", Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) takes credit for the doe-eyed waifs painted by his wife Margaret (Amy Adams).

We open in 1958 San Francisco with painter Margaret Ulbrich (Adams) leaving her husband. She and her pre-teen daughter Jane (initially Delaney Raye) try to make it on their own. How they'll do that seems something of a mystery; apart from child support, Margaret's only apparent income is from her artwork, which sees her agreeing to sketch children's portraits for as little as $1 (half her standard asking price). It is not finances as much as the possibility of losing custody of Jane that inspires Margaret to accept the spontaneous marriage proposal of Walter Keane (two-time Supporting Actor Oscar winner Christoph Waltz).

The charming Walter is also an artist. His paintings of French street scenes are moderately popular, but his true talent lies in salesmanship. He pays a jazz club owner (Jon Polito) to display both his and Margaret's paintings on the wall of the hall leading to the establishment's bathrooms. A minor scandal between owner and artist drums up some interest in the art. But it is Margaret's depictions of children with large, sad eyes that people want to buy. Walter takes credit for painting the doe-eyed waifs, largely to impress prospective buyers and increase sales. Before long, Margaret's iconic art catches on, aided no doubt by Walter's persuasive nature. By the time the couple is getting rich off mass-produced prints and posters, there is no way to undo the charade: Walter, who is secretly and legitimately a realtor, is the painter and identified as such on everything from newspaper articles to a television show.

Margaret is never comfortable with the deception, but she goes along with it. She continues to produce big-eyed paintings in secret while Walter gets all the credit and fame, rubbing shoulders with the likes of such celebrity patrons as Joan Crawford. The truth is even withheld from Jane (now Madeleine Arthur), although she has her suspicions, and creates a falling out between Margaret and her friend (Krysten Ritter).

Eventually, Margaret comes to her senses and does part ways with Walter, with the fiction intact. A year later, relocated to Hawaii and having become a Jehovah's Witness, the real artist of the family decides to reveal the truth, prompting a printed rebuttal, a slander and libel lawsuit, and a scandalous courtroom showdown finale.

While Walter (Christoph Waltz) feeds his fictions to reporter and sometimes narrator Dick Nolan (Danny Huston)... Margaret (Amy Adams) continues to produce her signature acrylic artwork in secret.

Big Eyes is written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski,
the duo who penned Ed Wood, one of Burton's best and his only one to win an acting Oscar (Martin Landau took home the Supporting Actor award). Taking their first screen credit in seven years, Alexander and Karaszewski have certainly found an interesting true story that many will not know coming in. Unfortunately, the story isn't much more interesting as a Tim Burton film than it is as a Wikipedia paragraph.

Burton's attention to detail and technical components manifests in some appealing period production design and costumes. A scene set on a San Francisco street full of pastel-colored shop signs knowingly wows you with the amount of work it must have required. As always, though, the allure of Burton's sumptuous production values has limits. At some point, you expect to forget about how the movie looks and just get lost in the characters, story, and drama. That never happens to the extent you hope it will, even with actors as skilled as Adams and Waltz in full command of the screen most of the time.

Their scarce, minimal supporting cast includes Jason Schwartzman as a gallery owner, Terence Stamp as a disapproving art critic, and Danny Huston as a journalist whose sporadic narration feels like an addition definitely conceived in post-production. As good as Waltz and Adams usually are, they too often here are saddled with stating the obvious as a master of BS and the accessory to fraud. That Walter is no longer alive enables the script to make him a full-fledged villain, a role that Waltz has regularly relished. But the proceedings are too often lacking subtlety and ambiguity. No matter how true to the official record it may be, the courtroom finale plays like a sitcom, stage or family comedy foray into the Hawaiian legal system.

That is certainly not how you wish or expect a Christmas Day-opening movie to end. As advantageous as the timing is for year-end lists and awards voting, it and the Weinstein backing unfairly elevate expectations to heights Big Eyes can't reach. The movie is too good to ignore and, were it unleashed in one of the first ten months of the year, it'd warrant savoring as a thoughtful alternative to teen-oriented multiplex fare. Instead, awards hopes weigh down on this even in a year in which too few films have genuinely impressed.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: The Imitation Game Into the Woods Inherent Vice Birdman St. Vincent
Amy Adams: American Hustle The Fighter Julie & Julia Doubt Man of Steel The Muppets
Christoph Waltz: Horrible Bosses 2 Django Unchained The Green Hornet
Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski: Ed Wood That Darn Cat (1997)
Directed by Tim Burton: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Frankenweenie Dark Shadows Alice in Wonderland

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Viewed November 26, 2014. Reviewed December 25, 2014.

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