Big Eyes

Movie Review #944


Premiered at Film Independent at LACMA on November 13, 2014. Nationwide release on December 25, 2014. Biography/Drama. This film is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language. Runs 106 minutes. An American-Canadian co-production. Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski. Cast: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, and Danny Huston.


By Alexander Diminiano

“The ’50s were a great time, if you were a man.”
– narrator’s opening line in “Big Eyes”

“Big Eyes” chronicles the life of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), known for her surreal paintings of waifs with caricatured eyes. At least that’s what she’s known for nowadays. The ’50s and ’60s should have been her heyday, but instead, it was her second husband’s. Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) won Margaret’s heart by making himself out to be an adventurous man, married her so that she didn’t have to give custody of her daughter to her first husband (at least that’s how the film tells it), and then grew an empire for her paintings. Well, his paintings, except she drew them. Here’s what I’m getting at. This guy was a lying son of a bitch who sold his wife’s paintings like hotcakes, and sure he split the earnings with her, but he made sure no one–not even their own daughter–knew that he wasn’t the one who painted them. The fact that Margaret would simply sign the paintings “Keane” left him all that room to lie.

I understand that Tim Burton is a Keane collector, but if he wanted to make a movie about Keane and her life, he should have rewritten the script so that it appealed to his own filmmaking style. Only on two occasions did the film strike me as something Burton would direct. One was a scene in which Margaret goes to the market. She looks around and every face she sees is marked by the same sort of gigantic, round eyes that she loves to paint. I sat frozen watching this scene because it was so damn creepy, but it’s also Burton making real into surreal when we least expect it. If I wasn’t frozen, I might have clapped.

The other indication, for me, was the opening. Tim Burton’s depiction of the mass production of Keane art bears an uncanny resemblance to his depiction of a chocolate bar being made in the opening to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (2005). Having seen that in theaters when I was eight, the opening was a huge rush of nostalgia for me. Put nostalgia aside and there’s still the fact that Danny Elfman’s opening theme is amazing. But alas, the nostalgic glory ends just too quickly, and the rest of Elfman’s “Big Eyes” score doesn’t even sound like Elfman wrote it. It’s one thing when Burton has a day off, but even in “Dark Shadows”, Elfman managed to bring the movie’s head above water with his music.

With “Big Eyes”, though, it’s not exactly a matter of bringing head above water. This isn’t a bad movie. The mise-en-scène here is terrific. Costume design, cinematography, set decoration, you name it. It’s baffling that this didn’t garner a single nomination at the Oscars. Additionally, Amy Adams delivers quite well as Margaret Keane, as does Christoph Waltz as her other half. Their dialogue, from a script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, is a festival of light humor, even if that only lasts for two-thirds of the movie. Alexander and Karaszewski also wrote Burton’s “Ed Wood”, which was Burton’s last biopic until “Big Eyes”. Sadly, “Ed Wood” happened 20 years ago, and it shows.


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