Big Eyes

Someone’s been using a little too much Clear Eyes. Academy Award nominee Amy Adams, Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston and Jason Schwartzman star in Tim Burton’s Big Eyes.

Big EyesCast of Characters:
Margaret Keane – Amy Adams
Walter Keane – Christoph Waltz
Dick Nolan – Danny Huston
Enrico Banducci – Jon Polito
DeAnn – Krysten Ritter
Ruben – Jason Schwartzman
John Canaday – Terence Stamp

Director – Tim Burton
Screenplay – Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski
Producer – Lynette Howell, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski & Tim Burton
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language

Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) is one of the most successful artists through the ’50s and ’60s, earning popular acclaim for his paintings of waifs with big eyes. The problem, however, is that the paintings were drawn by his wife Margaret (Amy Adams). All this time, the Keanes have been living a lie that grew too big to handle, and the more fame Walter gains from taking credit for his wife’s work, the more it affects their personal life.

Based on true events, Big Eyes is a fascinating story about cons, lies and having to live with the both of them, all leading to one of the more bizarre court cases that I’ve seen (surprisingly, it’s reported that Burton toned down that scene from what actually happened). The fact that it actually took place around five decades ago makes it all the more fascinating.

Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski clearly love biopics, having previously written The People vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon and current collaborator Tim Burton’s Ed Wood – all terrific films. Alexander and Karaszewski are pros when it comes to adapting the lives of eccentric characters to the screen, and once again, the writing duo have written a thoroughly absorbing screenplay filled with sharp dialogue and compelling characters. For a decade, Margaret and Walter Keane’s tumultuous relationship, and the events that surrounded it, was nothing short of madness, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the story that Alexander and Karaszewski have written.

Speaking of madness and eccentricity, director Tim Burton is one of the most inventive filmmakers of the past 30 years, yet with the exception of Sweeney Todd, his past few projects felt like he was just going through the motions (Dark Shadows, Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Big Eyes is such a refreshing return to form for Burton ’cause it’s him stepping outside his comfort zone and taking a break from the craziness that has defined his career. Some of Burton’s familiar touches do find their way in (a quaint suburban intro setting, a vibrant and colorful San Francisco, Margaret imagining actual people with eyes like her paintings, etc.), but they’re handled well. Overall, this is a more thoughtful, empathetic and understated approach from the former Beetlejuice and Batman director that proves he has more tools in his paintbox than people might give him credit for.

Krysten Ritter, Danny Huston and a perfectly cast Terence Howard as an art critic round out the supporting cast, but this is the Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams show. Adams is one of the best actresses we have working today, and certainly one of my personal favorites. As an artist swooned and then bullied into sitting on the sidelines while someone else takes credit for the work she clearly feels so personally attached to, she puts on display a wide array of emotions, from vulnerable to strong and empowered, always hitting the right notes. It’s a wonderfully nuanced performance from her.

One scene in particular has Howard’s art critic ripping Walter’s “work” to shreds, not knowing it’s actually Margaret’s as she quietly stands nearby listening, clearly crushed. In that moment, Adams earns every ounce of our sympathies without even having to say a single word.

Although by now moviegoers might be starting to get a little worn out seeing Christoph Waltz play another conniving villain, the man gets cast in these roles for a reason – he’s just that good at playing them. Granted, the trailers for this really didn’t do his performance justice, making it seem like he was gonna wind up as a sleazy caricature, but Waltz brings much more to the role. Walter’s clearly despicable for taking advantage of his wife, but we buy into his ruse just like Margaret did in the beginning ’cause as even she admits, he’s a great salesman. At first glance, when you begin to see what he’s really doing, you think he’s a monster, and for good reason. Over time, though, we don’t see a monster, but someone that’s simply sad and pathetic.

Mistaking one of his wife’s acrylic paintings as oil, and then trying to dig himself out of that hole when he’s called out on that flub best shows how sad he really is.

Smartly written, strongly acted and uplifting, Big Eyes is a more than welcome change of scene for director Tim Burton who finally breaks free from the creative rut he’s been stuck in for nearly a decade. It’s no surprise that a story this strange would attract Burton, but he avoids unnecessarily decorating the film with his trademark Burton flare and lets the madness come through two great performances from Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. It’s Burton’s best film since Sweeney Todd and his most restrained direction since Ed Wood.

I give Big Eyes an A- (★★★½).

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