Arts Review, Movies

Big Eyes

Big Eyes featured image

Tim Burton, director
Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, writers

Starring: Amy Adams (Margaret Keane), Christoph Waltz (Walter Keane), Krysten Ritter (DeeAnn), Danny Huston (Dick Nolan), Jason Schwartzman (Ruben), Terence Stamp (John Canaday), Delaney Raye (young Jane Keane), Madeleine Arthur (older Jane Keane)

Tim Burton has tackled yet another eccentric subject in Big Eyes, but for once, his story-telling approach is quite conservative. Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz dominate proceedings as the Keanes, an art couple who scored an unlikely success in the late 1950s and early 60s with a series of paintings featuring waifs with big eyes.

Was it art? Illustration? Kitsch?

Whatever it was, for a time, the pieces were incredibly successful. Walter Keane (Waltz), a charming hustler, took credit for the paintings, which he claimed were inspired by the homeless orphans he encountered in post-War Europe. Actually, the works were created by his wife Margaret (Adams), who agreed to keep their secret hidden even from Jane, her daughter from a first marriage she left before meeting Walter.

The Keanes and their waif paintings were very much a part of the San Francisco counter-culture at the time. They fit in with beat literature, jazz music, black clothes, berets and coffee houses. Somehow they seemed “alternative”: art that represented a difference in societal values during a time when Cold War conservatism was finally being challenged.

What was happening with the Keanes was anything but “alternative.” A man was taking advantage of a woman while building up his own reputation thanks in a large part to a newspaper columnist based on Herb Caen but called Dick Nolan (Danny Huston) in the film. Most of Burton’s film concentrates on the tempestuous relationship between the Keanes but the most entertaining scenes take place in jazz clubs and art galleries, where Walter Keane’s crazy charm, well recorded by Nolan, is part of the atmosphere of the times.

After nearly a decade together, Margaret left Walter for freedom and Hawaii. With the encouragement of her daughter Jane, eventually Margaret sued Walter over the artistic rights of the paintings. The Keanes’ “paint-off” in court to prove the artistry of the principals must be one of the most unique moments in American jurisprudence.

Where’s Burton in this tale of artistic hijinks? Hiding behind the performances of Adams and Waltz and perhaps distracted by plans for other films. Big Eyes is a clever film and the story is very entertaining. Burton’s film will be a hit—but a minor one.

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical 96.3 FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

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