Except for a few moments, Big Eyes is Tim Burton’s least Tim Burton-y movie for a long time. In fact it’s a relatively low key and straightforward affair which relies on the fact it’s got an interesting story to tell and knows that when you have actors like Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, it’s often best to just get out of their way and allow them to shine.
The film tells the true story of Margaret (Adams), who leaves her husband and heads for San Francisco with her young daughter where she hopes to make money from her art. That proves difficult, until she meets Walter Keane (Waltz), who also selling paintings and charms her with his stories of studying at a prestigious Parisian art school.
After a whirlwind romance they marry and Walter sets out to make his name in the art world. However he discovers that rather than people liking his rather staid street scenes, people respond to his wife’s images of children with massive eyes. Rather than saying his wife painted them, Walter takes the credit, with Margaret upset but cowed by the fact the lie has already been told, along with weak arguments about people not taking women’s art seriously.
Soon the big eyed paintings become a massive pop culture phenomenon, with ‘Walter Keane’ becoming the biggest selling artist in the world – despite the fact he hasn’t actually painted a single one of the pictures.
As their success grows Margaret becomes increasingly aware of what a fantasist Walter is and that there may be little about him that’s based on the truth. He’s also extremely volatile, which sets things up for a courtroom showdown where Walter insists to the world that he is the artist, but Margaret knows she has truth on her side.
It’s a great story, especially for those who know Keane’s work and/or who can remember the phenomenon around them in the late-50s and early-60s. Indeed Burton’s involvement in the movie came because he is a huge fan and has a number of Margaret’s big eye pictures.
Adams and Waltz are great. Indeed it’s a role that was almost made for Adams, who has an incredible knack for playing characters whose meek sweetness and innocence hides a fire within. Waltz sometimes goes a little too far towards slapstick with Walter (but the way the script is written, you can understand why), but he’s generally extremely good as a man for whom no lie is too big, and who seems to genuinely believe that a compelling fantasy is superior to any semblance of the truth.
We also have to thank the real-life Hawaiian judge who came up with the ending. It’s almost as if he was sat on the bench and thought, ‘You know, someone want to make a movie about this one day, so we’d better give them a good conclusion’. It’s the sort of thing that you’d think was a filmic conceit but in this case it’s actually true.
The movie’s main limitation is that it feels very small. It’s interesting and entertaining, but there’s not much more to it than that. Part of the problem comes from the script, which is sometimes clumsy with a sledgehammer to crack a nut approach and the fact that nearly all the characters except Walter and Margaret are thinly disguised ciphers to allow the main characters to tell you their thoughts.
Despite these problems it is a fun movie, and while it’s not a particularly Burton-esque film, it is visually quite beautiful and the Blu-ray certainly brings that out. There are also a couple of minor special features that are worth a look.
Overall Verdict: A fairly small film that thanks to its interesting true tale and great performances from Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz manages to entertain and amuse, even if it doesn’t manage much more.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac