Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Eyes Have It

Around this time last year, when movie critics were discussing which upcoming films were likely to figure into the next Oscar race, many were talking about Big Eyes. That talk evaporated when they actually got to see the film (and, judging from its low box office, when audiences chose not to see it). But after checking it out for myself, I'd say the movie wasn't really all that bad. It was just eclipsed by worthier fare.

Big Eyes is based on the true story of Margaret Keane. It's the late 1950s, and the dual stigma of her gender and her divorced status is making it hard for her to earn a living and support her daughter. During an outdoor art show in San Francisco, she meets Walter Keane, is soon swept off her feet, and remarries. Walter has a steady job, but dreams of being an artist, so the couple are constantly trying to establish themselves in the art world. When one of Margaret's stylish "big-eyed waif" paintings catches the right attention, it appears to be a big break. But through a misunderstanding, the buyer takes the painting to be one of Walter's, not Margaret's. A long con begins, with Margaret slaving away on hundreds of wildly popular new paintings that Walter takes all the credit for.

This movie is directed by Tim Burton, though you might not know from watching it. The "Big Eyes" of the title are pure Burton, an artistic choice that feels very in keeping with his films, particularly the animated ones. But nothing else about the movie is overtly in Burton's style. Save one brief hallucinatory sequence, it's all quite realistic. The sets, the costumes, the acting, the staging -- everything feels "normal" in a way Tim Burton seldom is. He has chosen to get out of the way of this story for the sake of its subject; you sense that Burton feels a true kinship, or at least respect, for the real Margaret Keane. (Though at the same time, Burton doesn't pull punches; the film expressly shows how the established art world looked down on Keane's work, regardless of which Keane they thought painted it.)

The two major roles of Margaret and Walter are played by Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. Adams effortlessly gets the audience on her side. You see how her character is led down this road, and share in her sense of injustice at where it leads. Waltz is a great fast-talking blowhard, so believable in the beginning of the film, and so ridiculous by the end of it. He also pulls off the necessary menace at the end of Act Two to drive the story toward a conclusion.

But while everything about the film is perfectly fine, it isn't especially moving. You can certainly appreciate the story intellectually, for the comments it makes on sexism, how times have changed (and how they haven't), and the passion people feel for art. But the feelings you see playing out on the screen never really take deep root in the audience. The story unfolds at a respectful distance, like a photo of a painting rather than the painting itself. It's far less effective than, say, the last time Tim Burton aimed for something deeper than fun, with Big Fish.

All told, I'd give Big Eyes a B-. If the story intrigues you, or you like either of the main actors involved, it's probably worth your time. But I'd be surprised if someone called it a personal favorite.

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