They say that truth is stranger than fiction. This has never been more true than for Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, a film based on real-life events that transpired in the 1960s and circled around the sad, big-eyed, and superbly popular art by Keane. A passion project by Tim Burton (he’s a personal collector of Keane’s work), he uses bright colors and off-putting settings to bring the bizarre story to life. And with Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz portraying the Keanes and their tumultuous relationship, we get a film that, from the outside, looks happy and tranquil, but is stirring with underlying tension.
Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) is leaving her husband Frank. In the 1950s, this is relatively unheard of, and for a while she struggles to be a woman on her own as well as a single mother to her daughter Jane (Madeleine Arthur). Margaret meets Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), an artist and real estate businessman. They don’t know each other long before they’re married. Walter convinces Margaret to begin showing off her artwork here and there for people to admire and purchase.
A good marketer, he convinces a local restaurant owner to display his wife’s art and when asked about the artist, Walter takes the credit for all the art and therefore begins overshadowing his wife. After Margaret’s work explodes and sweeps through the art world like a tornado on adrenaline, she’s heavily influenced by her husband’s condescension, lies, and deceit. In this sweep of fear for herself and from people, she foregoes her only friend (Krysten Ritter), convinces her daughter that the art is actually Walter’s, and while she lives in a beautiful mansion and practically has the life everyone envies, Margaret knows this is not what she signed up for when she married Walter.
Tim Burton directs with a deft hand, the intriguing and sometimes slightly off-kilter factor that Burton usually employs in his films to begin with is highly present in Big Eyes, especially when the story is just as bizarre as his own personal directing choices. The colors are bright, which belie the fact that anything odd is going on. The film looks like a nicely wrapped present that isn’t exactly what it seems, but once you open it up, it’s a complicated mesh of ugly events that transpire right in front of our eyes, and from an audience’s perspective, the story line alone might leave you with your jaw hanging open.
Christoph Waltz, used to taking on roles that involve a bit of crazy, slips into the shoes of Walter Keane so well, you’d think he was there all his life. Waltz commandeers the role and swings between personalities so quickly it’s impressive. One second he’s charming, the next a great salesman, and the next subtly threatening, before turning into outright scary. His eventual delusions about being an artist complicate things further and only serve to make him look more like a madman.
Amy Adams is always adept in playing doe-eyed, innocent women who’ve been wronged in some way, shape, or form. And her turn as Margaret Keane is no exception. She’s caught between being the gullible woman who lives in a time where being a woman on your own is unacceptable, and being able to take charge. Adams highlights these changes throughout the film as we see Margaret go from one chapter of her life to the next and the actress pulls it off very well.
Tim Burton instills the film with its own charm, even as the events of the film progress and the main characters’ relationship turns ugly in nature. There’s still something entertaining about it and Burton makes sure not to take too dark of a turn when it comes to this material, perhaps to also highlight how crazy the story actually is. Big Eyes is something you’ll want to see play out for yourself. If you’re familiar with the story, you’ll find that there are little tidbits you may not have known, and if you’re not familiar with it, well then you’re definitely in for a crazy ride that will really make you ask how this story could have possibly happened.