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Big Eyes (A Movie Review)

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Big Eyes

Big Eyes

BIG EYES (2014)

Starring Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Danny Huston, Terence Stamp, Jon Polito, Madeleine Arthur, Delaney Raye, Elisabetta Fantone, James Saito, Guido Furlani, Emily Bruhn, Alan MacFarlane, Tony Alcantar and Jaden Alexander.

Screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.

Directed by Tim Burton.

Distributed by The Weinstein Company.  106 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

In the 1990s, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski created a small cache of wonderful oddball film biographies. Unlike the expected Hollywood stance of honoring the lives of great heroes, Alexander and Karaszewski took a look at lives of quiet desperation.

The characters that fascinated the duo included arguably the worst director in film history (1994’s Ed Wood), a pornographer and unexpected first-amendment hero (1996’s The People vs. Larry Flynt) and an eccentric comedian who died young (1999’s Man on the Moon, about Andy Kaufman). The scripts attracted terrific directors – Tim Burton helmed Ed Wood and Milos Forman filmed Flynt and Moon.

However, despite the fact that all three films got terrific reviews and some Oscar notice, they were mostly overlooked by the movie-going public, as People vs. Larry Flynt became a minor hit and the other two sank with little wake in the box office pool. When those films did not become bigger hits, Alexander and Karaszewski turned their attention to more traditional movie fare, stuff like the dumb Norm MacDonald comedy Screwed, the kid-flick Agent Cody Banks and the actually very decent Stephen King adaptation 1408. After 1408 became a reasonably-sized success, the writers faded into the background again, with no films or TV projects since.

Seven years later, the guys are back in a big way. They have co-written a film version of R.L. Stine’s popular Goosebumps young adult horror books. They are also putting together a TV series called American Crime Story. But most excitingly, they have returned to their eccentric biopic sideline with this movie. Reuniting with Ed Wood director Tim Burton (and, despite his impressive reputation, this is easily the horribly uneven Burton’s best film since that movie 20 years ago) the duo takes a look at yet another forgotten pop culture phenomenon.

Big Eyes turns it’s wide-eyed gaze on Walter and Margaret Keane. Margaret (Amy Adams) was an early 60s divorcee who was trying to use her talent as a painter to raise her young child. She had a very distinct and oddball style, painting pathetic looking small children with huge, limpid eyes.

Margaret fell in with Walter (Christoph Waltz), a charismatic charlatan who was trying to peddle a bunch of derivative Paris street scenes to San Francisco art dealers. When Walter and Margaret got married, he started taking her paintings along with him to try to sell. But when Margaret’s work started getting significantly more attention than his own, Walter claimed her work as his own.

Soon the paintings had become a sensation, making the couple a huge amount of money. However the meek Margaret was constantly feeling guilty about the fact that she was letting her husband take credit for her work and committing a massive fraud on the public.

It’s an odd, small, intricate story, which is probably why this film works so well. It takes a look back at a pre-equality world where a woman like Margaret could be so concerned about her career and her daughter that she would let her husband steal from her.

Adams plays the character with a heartbreaking tentativeness and sense of worthlessness. Waltz does a good job also playing the glad-handing huckster, a man capable of great cruelty covered by a slickster smile. He also does a good job at defining the man’s delusion – the fact that his character is not able to distinguish that the kitschy paintings are not fine art, as well as his ready willingness to grab the spotlight from his intimidated wife.

Burton’s direction is definitely less fussy than it has been in quite some time (though a short scene where Margaret sees everyone in a grocery store with her trademark big eyes has the director written all over it) and takes a sweet and fun look at the worlds of both fine art and pop art.

Big Eyes is certainly not a vital story, but it is an intriguing and enjoyable one. It fits in quite well with Alexander and Karaszewski’s rogue’s gallery of beautiful losers.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2014 All rights reserved. Posted: December 31, 2014.

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