Can Tim Burton evolve? In recent years, Burton’s name has become as synonymous with self-plagiarism and creative bankruptcy as it has with black-and-white stripes and Johnny Depp‘s theatrical eyelash-batting. If the warm and gorgeous “Big Eyes,” his first live-action movie without Depp in more than a decade, is any indication, the answer is yes. The most human film from Burton since “Ed Wood,” this biopic of kitsch painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) marks a small but significant artistic growth.
In a sweet parallel, Burton’s leveling up takes place through his portrayal of another artist known for her mass appeal and aesthetic monomania. Margaret’s struggle to gain recognition as the creator of her work after her charming-sociopath husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) passes them off as his own for years is tidied into a Burton-esque tale about quavering protagonists who finally stand up to their bullies. But Margaret’s timidity finds greater resonance because she’s not just another one of Burton’s shrinking violets; instead, she’s a budding bloom repeatedly discouraged from seeking out the sun.
Pastels were the palette of the narrow-minded in “Edward Scissorhands,” but they bring vibrancy and hope to late 1950s San Francisco, where Margaret, a recent divorcee, arrives with her young daughter (Delaney Raye). In no time at all, she gets hitched once more, this time to the hyper-confident Walter, a “Sunday painter” with a thriving commercial real-estate business. He proposes on one knee with his arms outstretched, his whole body roaring, “Ta-da!”
When Margaret’s paintings become accessory to a nightclub brawl (long story), Walter relies on his flair for publicity and entrepreneurship to sell his wife’s work, but under his own name, well aware that a big personality (like his own) or a sad story (he can make one up) is likely to boost sales. Besides, as everybody knows, “People don’t buy lady art.”
“Big Eyes” is the rare film to treat art as both commerce and a piece of one’s heart. It’s initially delightful to watch Walter’s capitalist brain at work, the result of which is the highly profitable reproduction of his wife’s canvases into posters and calendars.
Burton’s approach to the paintings’ reviled critical reception, too, is refreshingly complex. A host of unkind things are said about them — my favorite was a comparison of those enormous, blank peepers to “big, stale jellybeans” — but the director and his “Ed Wood” screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski defend the popularity of Margaret’s creations while admitting their negligible artistic value.
It’s what you can imagine Burton, reportedly a Keane fan, saying about “Alice in Wonderland”: If it were really as terrible as everyone said, it wouldn’t have made a bajillion dollars. And those paintings couldn’t have become such blockbusters if it weren’t for Walter’s tireless promotion.
But it’s only a matter of time until Margaret, who’s forced into a sweatshop schedule of churning out painting after painting by her increasingly abusive husband, decides to reclaim her work as her own. The plot leads to the famous case of Keane versus Keane, in which Margaret strives to wrest authorship of her work from the man who made them lucrative and ubiquitous. (You can probably guess how the real-life lawsuit turned out, since this movie is about Margaret, not Walter.)
Adams is her familiar jittery, trembling, impressive self, her thought processes as readable as a book. She imbues nearly every scene with buzzy anxiety or weepy poignancy, especially when Margaret is burdened by the lies she and Walter tell her daughter about who the “real” painter is.
Waltz’s hammy performance loses its appeal by the film’s end, though he benefits from a character flaw of Walter’s that’s smartly not over-explained. The one discordant note of casting is Krysten Ritter, playing Margaret’s sole friend. Ritter’s a Keane painting come to life, yes, but she also adds a dissonant chord of modernity to her scenes.
Especially in a year so devoid of serious female-led dramas, it’s invigorating to see a feminist crowd-pleaser with the force of moral righteousness on its side. But “Big Eyes” is good, not great.
What keeps it from excellence is its reluctance to explore the very questions it raises: What does it feel like to be hated by scholars and taste-makers but beloved by millions? Why are the children in the paintings so sad? (“Are they poor?” asks one patron of the arts.) How successful were the Modigliani-inspired self-portraits Margaret begins to paint at the height of the big-eyes craze that she signed with her own name?
Margaret Keane’s crusade against her husband is pure, satisfying, cinematic feel-goodery (in the best, rousing sense). But with Burton aiming higher than he has in years, it’s too bad we can’t have just a little more sophistication with the usual triumphalism.