The current movie season has been riddled with true stories and biographies, most serious and reverent in anticipation of upcoming award glory. Tim Burton's new biopic of painter Margaret Keane separates itself from the pack in a prickly, delightful way.
“Big Eyes” tells the strange story of Margaret (Amy Adams), who paints waifs with oversized orbs.
In the 1960s, newly separated from her husband and with a daughter to support, she moves to a quirky, lively, pastel-coated San Francisco and starts selling her paintings at street craft fairs.
There she meets Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz). Exuberant and charming, he's a great salesman – just what the shy, introverted Margaret needs.
They marry and Margaret begins to sign her works with her new married name, Keane. During a potential sale, Walter tells a small, white lie and takes credit for one of the “big eyes” paintings.
The lie spins hideously out of control. The paintings become enormously successful and the secret must be kept at all costs. Margaret stays stuck in a secret studio, where she meekly, glumly churns out new paintings while Walter comes up with increasingly maniacal new schemes.
Of course, things come tumbling down and the movie climaxes in 1970 at an amazing trial. We learn that the real Keane is currently in her 80, still painting, and living in Napa.
Danny Huston plays Dick Nolan, the real-life San Francisco Examiner columnist who writes about the Keanes and who narrates the bizarre story.
Funny, weird and disturbing while still feeling truthful, “Big Eyes” is Burton's most grown-up work to date. Without abandoning the director’s personal vision, it presents a deliriously twisted view of domestic life in the 1960s and 1970s, and also deals with a difficult, complex adult relationship.
While Adams qualifies as one of Burton's usual willowy blondes (Winona Ryder in “Edward Scissorhands,” Patricia Arquette in “Ed Wood,” etc.), she beautifully conveys a passionate inner life, and a crippling lack of self-esteem and self-worth.
Waltz's character nicely fits with some of Burton's energetic creator characters (Ed Wood, Jack Skellington), except he's the ironic opposite: He's really a monster and he doesn't actually create anything.
Screenplay writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski – who also wrote Burton’s best film “Ed Wood” – have a true touch for unusual biography. Together, the trio captures a kind of “Amazing Stories” vibe, but rooted in human pain and beauty, with a view through the windows of the soul.
Three and a half stars
Starring: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter
Written by: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Directed by: Tim Burton
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes