“Big Eyes” is a depressingly bad and soulless seriocomedy based on the true story of Margaret Keane, a timid woman who painted pictures of creepy children and who was knowingly complicit in allowing her husband Walter to take credit for her work in 1960s San Francisco.
This banal, awkwardly directed biopic of sorts was once thought to be an Oscar hopeful for Amy Adams, whose sublime talents are wasted by such malnourished material. The characters are paper-flat: Margaret lies helpless in the shadows of her monster of a husband as he apes the success that ought to be hers. He has done an evil thing, but the film seems indifferent to that evil. Maybe it should have focused on Margaret’s reinvention of herself once she finally, after almost 102 sagging minutes, retains legal rights to her adored paintings of children with bug eyes and big heads.
Instead, the movie is all about Walter. It adores Christoph Waltz, who plays the megalomaniac, simpering plagiarist whose faux charisma beguiles the art world. Jason Schwartzman steals one scene as the mustachioed peddler of expressionistic splatter at a gallery across the street from the Keanes’.
Krysten Ritter, tragically underused, is also lovely as Margaret’s spunky pal. Costume designer Colleen Atwood seems to have the most fun ornamenting her character, whereas Adams is stuffed into blowsy, cartoonish-looking duds, the caricature of a 1950s or 60s housewife. Also sorely underused is the talent of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (“Inside Llewyn Davis”), whose pop-colored images are underlit, and overshadowed by the clumsy staging of the actors.
This long-in-the-works screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski for a film Burton was initially set to produce (but directed anyway) ignores the opportunity to critique this male-dominated environment, leading me to wonder why Burton was drawn to the material in the first place aside from the scary babies in the paintings. Keane is a woman fighting in a man’s world. She’s imprisoned by the gender barriers of the time. But there are more novel ways to tell this story than to essentially compress the psychology of your female lead into that and only that.
Tonally, this movie is schizophrenic. In a middle scene, Waltz descends into full-blown “Shining” mode, chucking smoldering matches at Margaret and her daughter, who are scared. Danny Elfman’s plodding score (one of his laziest ever, and it never, ever stops) swells as Walter sputters into maniacal laughter as readies to viciously murder his family and burn his “empire” (his words) to the ground. The women manage to escape, but the camera stays on Walter, whom it believes to be more interesting, and this horrifying rage spiral into near-familicide is never acknowledged again. Okay then.
But “Big Eyes” played enormously well Thursday night at a LACMA screening presented by Film Independent, where audiences went nuts for Waltz’s exaggerated pantomimes and Adams’ low-key inhabiting of a real-life painter whose legacy, thankfully, will survive this film. TWC releases it on December 25.