Tim Burton’s not been doing so well these days.
In many ways, he feels almost reduced down to a parody of himself, where a ‘Tim Burton production’ stands for a few cutesy tropes that have been overplayed to death, Johnny Depp gets wheeled out, Danny Elfman plays the music, and the credits roll. However, one of the themes that Burton always focuses on is that of the unacknowledged outsider, and in Big Eyes, he manages to bring that across to the story of a very real woman who lived a very interesting life that you may not know that much about.
In 1950’s America, Margaret Keane (Adams) marries Walter Keane (Waltz), and Margaret begins to engage in the hobby of painting, mostly pictures of children with oversized, overly dramatic eyes. Through a chance situation that generates some interest, demand soon begins to be made for her paintings, but her husband convinces her to publish the pictures under his name, because paintings by women apparently wouldn’t be as successful. From there, the drama is largely built from the degenerating relationship between Margaret and Walter.
In this avenue, Adams outshines Waltz, who mostly keeps to a few standard “abusive husband” moods, whereas she brings a sense of simultaneous deep engagement and humorous detachment from her role that works very well. One of the secondary themes in the story is that the artwork Keane makes is popular amongst the public but is largely scorned critically, and the performances and direction manage to create sympathy for the idea of these pieces being valuable artworks, while still understanding the element of kitsch that will always surround them. The bigger problem, and one that Adams shows beautifully, is how fame matters less to her than her integrity on the matter.
Big Eyes is an interesting presentation of a biography, and shows that Tim Burton can still generate a good movie in his style without making it an enormous “Burton Production,” with all that entails. If you’d like to see the life of an incredibly interesting and talented woman as drama, pick this one up.