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At first glance, Big Eyes may look like the least Burtonesque film Tim Burton has ever made. There are no whimsical misfits, no enchanted worlds concealed by the dreariness of daily life, no outsized comic book or fairytale villains, no sequences consisting solely of computer or stop-motion animation. Johnny Depp is not a member of its cast. But as Burton unravels the true story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), the creator of kitschy paintings of destitute children with enormous eyes that her husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) claimed as his own and got rich off of, many of the director’s trademark weaknesses become apparent.
In fact, if anything the film’s unshakable basis in reality makes those weaknesses more glaring. There’s the obnoxious and unnecessary voice-over, here provided by San Francisco gossip columnist Dick Nolan (Danny Huston), who helped boost Walter’s career. “The ’50s were a great time … if you were a man,” he says as Margaret leaves her first husband and suffocating suburban milieu in the film’s opening scene. There’s the stilted dialogue, which in Burton’s more surreal and otherworldly films is more easily overlooked, but in this based-on-true-events context comes off as a canned approximation of how real people speak. There’s the rickety pacing of scenes that makes the first two thirds of the film feel like an exhausting marathon of exposition. Lastly, and this is less of a Burton trope, there’s the frustratingly limited use of two potentially hilarious supporting actors: Jason Schwartzman as a modern art dealer who refuses to show Keane’s kitsch, and Terence Stamp as New York Times art critic John Canaday. “He’s like the hula hoop,” Canaday says of Walter in a badly bungled opportunity for more incisive analogizing, “he just won’t go away.”
Despite these and other flaws, Big Eyes remains watchable thanks to Adams and Waltz, its few moments of Burtonesque flair — especially a nightmarish, Stepford Wives-like supermarket scene, with obligatory Campbell’s soup can cameo — and the fascinating story it tells about art in the last half-century. We can glimpse, in the gap between the Ab Ex work Schwartzman’s dealer struggles to sell and the sentimental paintings flying off the walls at the Keane Gallery across the street, the void that pandering artists like Jeff Koons would eventually fill. Walter’s move to sell cheap prints and posters of his wife’s paintings by the thousands rather than original paintings by the dozens anticipates the empire that Thomas Kinkade built on a similar business model. Walter’s relentless manipulation of the press and unsuspecting celebrities to boost his name seems like an embryonic version of the current collapse of the art world and entertainment industries into each other.
Such compelling historical parallels add texture to what is essentially a very unusual domestic drama driven by the contrast and chemistry between its two leads. The disarming naivete and dogged loyalty of Adams’s Margaret plays perfectly against the scheming and sniveling Walter, whom Waltz plays as if he were auditioning to play the Batman villain Two-Face. By the time the climactic courtroom paint-off happens — the Keanes’ dispute was finally settled by a federal court in Honolulu in 1986 — there won’t be any eyes, big or small, left dry in the theater.
Big Eyes opens in US theaters on December 25.