In “Big Eyes” Tim Burton takes on the oddball odyssey of Walter and Margaret Keane, who a half century ago launched an art-world/cultural sensation with cartoonish paintings of children with huge, sad eyes.
Despite being savaged as tasteless kitsch by the critics — the eyes were compared to “big stale jelly beans” — these “Keane Kids” became hot commodities. Fame and fortune followed. Think of it as a pre-Tomas Kinkade display of bad taste.
Eventually the Keane Kids generated a scandal when it was proven in court that Walter Keane, who claimed to be the artist, was in fact no more than a hack taking credit for his wife’s work.
Burton has two very fine actors in Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams. His recreation of ‘60s San Francisco feels authentic. And the subject matter promises something along the lines of “Ed Wood,” for my money the director’s most heartfelt work.
After all, both films are about “artists” who specialize in…well, not art.
But whereas “Ed Wood” was a very funny celebration of a tasteless filmmaker — often cited as the worst director of all time yet obsessed with capturing his questionable vision on celluloid — “Big Eyes” is a more conflicted affair.
The movie begins with Margaret Albrecht (Adams) fleeing an abusive marriage and starting anew as a single mom in San Francisco. On weekends she erects an easel in a park and draws portraits — big-eyed portraits — of kids whose tourist parents want a record of their visit.
This is where she meets Walter Keane (Waltz), who claims to have studied art in Europe and is unsuccessfully peddling his indifferent oils of French street scenes. Walter is glib and charming and has an aura of sophistication. Margaret falls hard.
Soon the married couple are attempting to sell their art by hanging it on the walls of a popular nightclub. Nobody much cares for Walter’s work, but Margaret’s big eyes are just weird enough to draw attention.
Walter, the businessman and negotiator, sees an opening. He claims the kids are his invention, that he’s the artist, and with the malleable Margaret working silently in the background, they create an art movement.
They get filthy rich, buy a luxurious modern home. But Margaret, who truly believes in her work — “The eyes are how I express my emotions…these children are a part of my being” — is slowly coming undone by the attention-hogging, money-burning, womanizing Walter.
At one point he demands that his wife paint a massive big eyes mural for a World’s Fair exhibit. “Where’s my defining statement?” he demands.
Few actors are as good at portraying sleaze as Waltz, whose greed and ego are amusingly off the charts.
And with her girl-next-door sincerity, Adams quickly engages an audience’s sympathy.
But here’s the thing.
We can see why Tim Burton was drawn to the material. He’s always been attracted by fringe artists who carve their own artistic path despite humiliation, lack of recognition and critical disdain.
As Walter fumes to one commentator: “What’s wrong with the lowest common denominator? It’s what this country was built on.”
But Burton’s satiric instincts are hobbled. Margaret Keane is still alive and painting her big eyes, and you get the feeling that the filmmaker is too sympathetic to her story, too cautious about causing her pain, to let his sarcasm rip.
As a result, “Big Eyes” feels muted. It wants to cut loose and be nastily, outrageously funny. But it’s afraid to.
And we’re left wondering what might have been.