It’s the Awards Season Onslaught time! So that can mean only one thing; quickie reviews so you (and I) can get out and enjoy the season faster. Feliz Chrismukwanzyulekkah y’all!
Before: Wait. This is a Tim Burton joint? Oh man, I hope it’ll be more true to history than Big Fish crazy. There’s a time for crazy, and a time for filling folks in on a crazy story. Plus, I had two old Keane prints in my bedroom when I was a kid. Creepy as hell, yet I couldn’t take ‘em down. They were judging me, and found me sad. Y’know what else is sad? The official web site looks like it’s been hacked by Walter’s family…or perhaps that’s simply Burton’s way of letting potential viewers in on the sturm-und-drang of Keane’s life before they hit theaters?
During: “I think what Walter Keane has done is just terrific. It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.” — Andy Warhol
What a perfect start to this film. A look at how 60s America became a consumer culture, and pop art the way to be cool. There’s lots of cool in this movie, from Danny Elfman’s hip-but-accessible soundtrack, to the gloriously tacky/classic costumes from Colleen Atwood, to Rick Heinrichs’ pitch-perfect production design. You get swallowed whole by Burton’s timeline, and yet all this doesn’t swamp the performances. Amy Adams is excellent as the woman who transforms from quiet housewife to boho painter to silenced artist to Woman On Her Own, and Christoph Waltz is a hoot as the delusional but enchanting husband/Svengali Walter Keane. Adams plays Margaret in simple but honest way; letting her expression and tone of voice express all the pain and difficulty in keeping a lie for so long.
Burton reins in his inherent Burton-ness here, and it pays off. There’s a touch of quirk here and there, and of course the story itself is, to use the 60s vernacular, pretty far out, but Burton keeps things on an even keel, letting the personalities of both Keanes take center stage. Smart move.
After: While at times I felt like Waltz was chewing scenery for no better reason than it was there, poking around on the interwebs shows me a few items that make it seem as though his portrayal of Walter was actually toned down. Huh. There are a few times when Waltz veers towards the rabid with his portrayal, but even though I felt the Whatever Happened To Baby Jane vibe of those scenes didn’t jibe with the rest of the film’s tone, I’ll just let those scenes stand as a testament to Walter’s monomania.
I need to learn more about these people! Mission accomplished, Burton. And it’s nice to see that Margaret’s work is still available. This time though, it’s all her.
BTW, the real Margaret Keane has a small cameo in the film. Find here when both cinematic Keanes are painting by the bay. She’s the elegant older woman sitting on the park bench behind them. A lovely little nod.
Nutshell: I’d give Big Eyes a B+. A fully realized view of the 60s American art scene, writ small by focusing on a then-famous pairing. Waltz as a jazz-hands huckster sometimes grates, but it gives real credence to Adams’ Margaret Keane, and the reasons why she stayed.