Big Eyes, Tim Burton’s latest biopic, brings to mind that quote nebulously attributed to Mark Twain: “It is no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” While the life story of artist Margaret Keane is fascinating, and Burton adapts it more accurately than you might expect, the film as a whole doesn’t cohere. Simple chronology plays a larger role than narrative craft in its structure. Big Eyes is far from senseless, but its themes and storylines conflict in ways that are more acceptable in life than art.
This might seem an unlikely complaint to anyone who has watched the trailer or the beginning of the movie itself. I sat down in the theater expecting a clear story about the limitations faced by women in the mid-twentieth century, and the first few minutes didn’t surprise me in the slightest. In the movie’s opening line, a spectacularly unsubtle voice-over declares, “The fifties were a grand time, if you were a man.” We see Margaret (Amy Adams) escaping a confining marriage and a pastel suburban neighborhood with her young daughter, Jane. Life is hard for a single mother in this decade, the voice-over tells us. As Margaret, a trained artist, struggles to hold a job in a furniture-painting factory, the reminder is hardly necessary.
So far, so simple. Adams brings a deft touch to her character, whose willpower and creativity are sometimes undercut by her uncertain standing in a world stacked against her. She communicates volumes during silent moments—a smile at her daughter, a critical glance at her easel. Then Christoph Waltz enters as the charming and manipulative Walter Keane, unbalancing the film in both interesting and frustrating ways.
Next to Adams’s restraint, Waltz chews the scenery. An American salesman who took credit for his wife’s art until the day he died, the real-life Walter Keane was an attention-grabbing figure himself. The film’s most absurd scene, in which Keane cross-examines himself before a jury, comes more or less straight from the Keanes’ 1986 slander trial. Waltz manages to push his character even further over the top with a frenetic acting style and his own undisguised Austrian accent. The unusual performance works to some extent: it’s hard to look away. Walter’s sleazy brand of commercialism clashes entertainingly with the highbrow art world as he guides Margaret’s paintings into mass production. Outside the public eye, he becomes more menacing, obsessed with protecting his ego as well as his source of income.
Together, Adams and Waltz create a compelling dynamic, pitting garish showmanship against quiet sincerity. But Adams’s strong performance can’t save her character from weak writing. As Walter forces Margaret to spend her days painting in hidden attics and locked rooms, the script often pushes her aside as well. Male art critics gleefully tear into her paintings of big-eyed children as popular schlock, and the only defense she makes for her art is an old cliché: “The eyes are the windows to the soul.” The unnecessary voice-over from an unimportant reporter character reduces and simplifies her further, with such groan-worthy lines as, “There were just two things Margaret cared about: her daughter and her art.” While the film’s plot follows Margaret Keane’s personal journey into independence, Big Eyes fails to give her character the psychological depth she deserves.
That failure could be the death knell for a more straightforward biopic. Fortunately, the atmosphere of this movie portrays Margaret’s inner life with greater subtlety and sympathy than the script. Burton’s more tired gimmicks are nowhere to be found. The lurid color scheme helps to depict a world that remains dangerous despite its placid surface, and the omnipresence of advertising and consumer excess contrasts vividly with Margaret’s more secluded private life. Her character appears adrift in a society that welcomes a con man’s schemes more than a woman’s voice.
The disparate elements of Big Eyes—the vague art world satire, the limited character studies, the paintings that are alternately mocked and lauded—don’t add up to a wholly convincing portrayal of Margaret Keane. But they certainly create an engaging work of art.
A compelling but flawed portrait of the artist as a persevering woman.