on who you ask, Margaret Keane’s big-eyed children paintings are either a
precursor to George Rodrigue’s gallery-accepted Blue Dog paintings or a spiritual
forerunner of Thomas Kinkade’s kitsch. Either way, the key point for her new
bio-film treatment is that they really were her paintings and not the work of
her credit stealing husband. It is a strange story, but it is told in a
disappointingly conventional manner in Tim Burton’s Big Eyes (trailer
opens this Christmas in New York.
Ulbrich packed up her daughter and walked out on her first husband at a time
when such drama was scandalous. She relocated to San Francisco to pursue her
dream of making it as an artist, but the only eye her work catches is that of
Walter Keane. He too fancies himself an artist, but the real estate broker only
has a talent for salesmanship. Convinced she needs taking care of, Ulbrich soon
marries the brash Keane, believing their mutual interest in art will be a good
fateful night at Enrico Banducci’s hungry i club, Keane manages to sell one of
his wife’s big eye paintings, but he kind of, sort of allows the purchaser to
believe he is the artist. One thing leads to another and soon Walter Keane is a
media sensation. Although she is troubled by the arrangement, Ms. Keane keeps
churning out big eyes to feed her husband’s growing pop culture empire.
However, despite his secret fraud, Walter Keane is bizarrely vexed by the
proper art world’s snobbish appraisal of his (meaning her) work, leading to
some odd confrontations with the profoundly unimpressed art critic John Canaday,
who really ought to be considered the hero of this picture.
course, MDH Keane (as she starts to sign paintings) will eventually have enough
of her husband’s manipulations and deceit. Running off to Hawaii, Keane
re-starts her life after joining the Jehovah’s Witnesses. When she is finally
ready, she will assert her claim to the Big Eyes body of work, precipitating a
court battle for rights to the Keane brand.
are many aspects of Big Eyes that
will make people want to like it. After all, how often do films feature Cal
Tjader jamming in Banducci’s club or portray Jehovah’s Witnesses in favorable,
empowering light? Unfortunately, Burton’s uninspired made-for-cable vibe and
Christoph Waltz’s overly manic performance always feel at odds with each other.
The climatic courtroom scenes are particularly problematic, coming across excessively
jokey, without ever delivering a good punch line.
least Waltz is trying. As Margaret Keane, Amy Adams and her woe-is-me victim
routine simply fade into the background. Their teenaged daughter also
periodically wanders in and out of the film, but good luck remembering anything
she says or does. Still, Burton and a fine supporting cast make the pre-hippy
San Francisco scene come alive on-screen. Jon Polito flat out steals the film
as the charismatic Banducci, while Terence Stamp’s Canaday is a tart-tongued
joy. Danny Huston also adds some desperately needed acerbic flair as journalist
Dick Nolan, who narrates the film as if it were a newspaper column.
Given Burton’s name in the credits, viewers will
be waiting for Big Eyes to get good
and crazy. Unfortunately, Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski’s screenplay
is the cinematic equivalent of a Reader’s Digest condensed book. You can pick
up the general outline, but the distinctive idiosyncrasies are largely glossed
over. The results are disappointing, especially for Burton fans. Mostly just okay,
Big Eyes will probably only satisfy
Keane collectors when it opens nationwide tomorrow (12/25), including the
Angelika Film Center in New York.
Labels: Christoph Waltz, Margaret Keane, Tim Burton