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David Poland

By David Poland

Review: Big Eyes

Big Eyes is a movie of shocking complexity and grace, given how simple it seems on the surface.

The simple synopsis is that a single mother paints images that are mocked by many, but which connect so deeply that they became (and remain) iconic. She marries a hustler who ends up assuming her role as the artist with the public, which allows her to shrink as he steals the spotlight (and money) for himself.

Add Tim Burton to the mix and it seems a lot of people expect a Mars Attacks! level farce or a variation on Ed Wood. But it is neither. This, aside from Big Fish, is easily Burton’s most “grounded” film. I detected a lot of interesting work with the landscapes (from the steady hand and with the color correction skills of Bruno Delbonnel) and the locations are gloriously dense and odd. You can feel Burton’s strong, experienced hand here, but not as we are used to seeing it.

The center of the movie is Amy Adams as Margaret Ulbrich, nee’ Hawkins, soon-to-be Keane, who shrinks into a character in a way I have never seen before. Not the young nun in Doubt. Not the wallflower (who blossoms) in Julie & Julia. This is a small, shivering bird of a woman. Even her voice is tiny. Though somehow, even from the start, there is the underlying emotional bravado of someone who is deeply connected to her art and the steely focus of being a separated/divorced woman living on her own with her child in the late 50s. She is hiding. She clearly has been brought up not to make too much noise. But she was strong enough to leave one husband and she is, undeniably, an artist.

Enter Christoph Waltz’s Walter Keane. Waltz is stripped of Tarantino’s dialogue and quirky character here. Also missing is Tarantino’s style of making Waltz’s characters mysterious about their real intentions, their possible actions. Not so with Walter Keene. This guy is the ultimate salesman. No blinking. No boundaries. Not a Glengarry salesman. This is a guy who would have walked up to Alec Baldwin’s hard ass and fondled those brass balls like they were his own. He tells us what he wants right up front and he spends most of the movie getting it.

It would be very easy for this to turn into a cartoon at any moment. But Burton and screenwriters Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski choose not to go that way. There is a lot of humor. But it’s often quite dry and burns slowly.

Big Eyes, oddly, quite reminded me of The Imitation Game, with Margaret Keane stuck in the closet—both literally and figuratively—as the world rages outside of her grasp. Obviously, Nazis and art-clingers are a very different outside world. But as Alan Turing stays deeply focused on his work, aware of, but not participating on what is going on outside, so is Margaret Keane. And coming out of that closet is terrifying and, perhaps, dangerous.

The film is also a fairytale of sorts, but in this one, Little Red Riding Hood marries the Big Bad Wolf. He manages to eat her all up, but instead of trying to get out, she lives there in his stomach, trying to make the best of it, as though she was responsible for being eaten.

There is also a very Garp-ian element, as Margaret is just the kind of woman who would live in Jenny Fields’ home for women who need a safe place to heal. But there is none here. This film, like that part of Garp, takes place on the early edge of the women’s movement, in San Francisco. Again, this could have been leaned on heavily, but the filmmakers show a light touch. This is easily the strongest feminist statement film of this award season. But it is even more about reminding anyone of any sex who is fearful of embracing their own power that living in fear is no way to live… a post-feminism feminist statement.

The balance of Adams and Waltz is what drives most of the film. She is so small and he is so large that there is a near-perfect balance. She seeks safety and he is forever hungry. He has the big personality and she has a real (albeit odd) talent. He concerns himself with no rules and she is as strict with herself as a nun. But what really works about this film is that both characters go further and further into their emotional corners until he forgets to worry about her and she is so small she might just fade away. But she can’t… she has a daughter… and so starts the third act.

I didn’t really know what to expect from this film. And I was shocked. I know that man. I know that woman. I know that unintentional co-dependency. I was a small child through the height of the Keane era, but I know these people. And it’s an elegant descent into madness of a sort. What really makes it consistently unexpected is the honest need that both characters have to be loved for their art… even if Walter’s art is not his own.

I loved the supporting characters here, from Jon Polito as the real-life impresario Enrico Banducci in the period Hungry i to Terence Stamp as the New York Times art critic to James Saito as a judge, who, like so many elements of the film, underplays it gloriously when ham could well have been served.

But it’s those two central characters who own Big Eyes. It’s Adams first. And this may be her best performance yet. She has gone to very different places in the last few years, from The Fighter to The Master to American Hustle to Margaret Keane. There was that moment around Doubt, where it seemed we might know her acting range. But she has blasted out of any expectation that anyone could have had. For me, the performance in The Fighter, while excellent, was not shocking. It was the other side of a coin. But starting with The Master, Adams has become one of our greatest, most range-y actresses, full stop. That was, mostly a veiled performance. In American Hustle, she delivered full adult sexuality for the first time on camera. And here, breathtaking restraint… literally. And yet, as deeply as she disguises herself in her characters, these are not “character actor” performances. They are mature, controlled, leading women.

Adams’ performance is not the only great performance by an actress this year. No one’s ever is. But when you put her next to such vastly different kinds of work, like Julianne Moore’s or Marion Cotillard’s, you can’t really compare them on the same basis. They are so very different and special for such different reasons. But wow.

As for Waltz, I have found myself feeling like he has been a bit of a one-trick pony in his film performances. But, as noted above, there has been nothing on film that has fit him this well that was not written by Tarantino. And he thrives on a broader emotional space. He goes from goofy attractive to utterly repulsive and all kinds of places in between in this role. I prefer it to either of his Oscar-winning turns.

But don’t forget Tim Burton or the screenwriters. This is a beautifully set table. At some point in the first act, I found myself deeply excited about having a director with such a sure grasp taking me on this journey. I was reminded oh what it is like to see a film in which the director really understands the frame. It may seem basic, but it has become increasingly rare.

Like a movie star who has put aside his/her trademark schtick aside for a role, this is a most unexpected turn from Burton. It still has his flair, but he’s dialed it down to the point where if you didn’t know it was a Burton film, you wouldn’t guess. Some things might seem “Burtonesque,” but aside from a few imagined visions of Keane’d people, nope. But you can feel that the film is being shot by a master.

And for me, Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski’s screenplay just kept teeing up great stuff. It’s so complex… yet so simple. There are great beats. Great lines. But they never get in the way of the story by being too clever. And unlike their bios of Larry Flynt and Andy Kaufman, there isn’t so much story here that they have to fight to get it all out. This story is smaller, so we have lots of time to linger. And when these guys linger, scenes hum.

All said and done, the story of Big Eyes for me… a movie what seems to be the least subtle art ever that is quietly, persuasively, relentlessly about the heart of an artist. And a group of artists.

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8 Responses to “Review: Big Eyes”

  1. Christophe says:

    Nice piece! The parallels between Margaret Keane’s body of work and Tim Burton’s are striking: kitsch on the outside, heartfelt on the inside, but always unique and personal, hence the mockery they’ve both had to endure during their respective careers, despite their tremendous success.

    I don’t get the last paragraph though: “a movie THAT seems to be” or “a movie ABOUT WHAT seems to be”? Completely different meanings.

  2. Carol says:

    I think Julianne Moore and Marion Cotillard performances are better than Amy did.

  3. Glamourboy says:

    Has anyone made the connection yet to Tim Burton and Margaret Keane, in the sense that Burton worked at Disney doing art that other people ended up getting credit for…and he (along with many other salaried artists), didn’t get noticed for. And how Burton finally broke out of that box and became famous for his own sensibility.

  4. movieman says:

    The problematic “Big Fish” aside, “Big Eyes” felt like Burton’s most personal film since “Ed Wood.”
    I liked it a lot.

  5. Gggggggvv says:

    i was brought here by rotten tomatoes which said this review was rotten for some reason,

  6. David Poland says:

    Didn’t have a splattered tomato… or a ripe one. Fixed now.

  7. cadavra says:

    FWIW, it’s my understanding that Karaszewski and Alexander had been trying to produce this script for a decade and only got it greenlit when they went to Burton and he agreed to direct it. So in that sense it was more of a work-for-hire gig for Burton rather than an organically-developed project. Too, he wanted to prove he could still make a small movie quickly and inexpensively (the budget is supposedly $16 million). So if it seems less “Burton-y,” that’s likely the reason. It’s still wonderful regardless of who the “auteur(s)” is/are.

  8. KEANE Family says:

    Despite our best efforts, the Keane Family has been unsuccessful in opening a dialogue with the creators of the film “Big Eyes”. All of our communications to date have gone unanswered. We are here to dispel the myths perpetuated by the media.


    Saturday, 20 December 2014

    Press Release: Official Statement by Susan Hale Keane, Daughter of Walter Stanley Keane

    Born in 1947, I am Susan Keane, daughter of Barbara and Walter Keane.

    Following the traumatic death of my brother Stanley, and a highly successful joint venture in real estate, throughout the late 40s and early 50s, my parents and I lived in post WW2 Europe, while maintaining a home in Berkeley, California, designed by Julia Morgan, built in 1906.

    During that time, my mother, in pursuit of a PhD, studied cooking at Le Cordon Bleu, fashion design with couturiers including Edwar Sene, and Universität Heidelberg, while my father studied painting at École des Beaux-Arts and L’Académie de la Grand Chaumière in Paris.

    Initially speaking an amalgamation of 5 languages, I learned to draw and paint alongside my father from an early age.

    During 1949, in the ballroom of our Berkeley mansion “Elmwood House”, I watched my parents create, “Susie Keane’s Puppeteens”, “big eyed” wooden puppets, hand painted by Walter, with clothing designed and sewn by Barbara. Adorned in an ornately illustrated box, accompanied by a book and language record set, these sold in San Francisco, New York and London, at high end department and toy stores including Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, I Magnin and FAO Schwartz, as seen in this 1951 edition of UK’s House & Garden magazine.

    In 1950 my mother Barbara became department head of dress design at UC Berkeley, while Walter painted full time. I observed my father’s friendship with Berkeley painter Robert Watson to be a profound influence on both my own and Walter’s evolving style, as he shifted his early focus from street scenes and nudes, to ominous ethereal imagery of exaggerated perspective.

    After my parents filed for divorce in 1953, my father and I met Peggy (Margaret Doris Hawkins Ulbrich), during an exhibition of Walter’s paintings.

    At that time, Mrs Ulbrich, a former New York baby furniture factory worker, made her living painting names on neckties, in cooperation with her husband Frank, supplemented by quick realistic portrait sketches of passers by at street fairs. None of her work to date had “big eyes”.

    Soon, Mrs Ulbrich moved in with my father, and he took her on as his “Eliza Doolittle” and artistic apprentice.

    Later, Mrs Ulbrich filed for a divorce from her husband Frank, and swiftly married my father in 1955. Her daughter Jane moved in, and she and Margaret learned to paint under my father’s tutelage. I witnessed the evolution of their artistic process.

    Continued on

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