Film Review: ‘Big Eyes’

Film Review: 'Big Eyes'

Amy Adams plays the painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's colorful but shallow biopic.

The eyes may be the windows to the soul, but they wind up revealing far too little in “Big Eyes,” an unpersuasive, paint-by-numbers account of the fraud perpetrated by Walter Keane, who succeeded in fooling the public and amassing a fortune by passing off his wife Margaret’s paintings as his own. Despite Amy Adams’ affecting performance as an artist and ’50s/’60s housewife complicit in her own captivity, this relatively straightforward dramatic outing for Tim Burton is too broadly conceived to penetrate the mystery at the heart of the Keanes’ unhappy marriage — the depiction of which is dominated by an outlandish, ogre-like turn from Christoph Waltz that increasingly seems to hold the movie hostage. Still, the tale’s colorfully entertaining veneer and the name talents involved should draw an appreciative number of arthouse patrons to the Weinstein Co. release, set to open Christmas Day.

Although this independent production qualifies as a change of pace for Burton following the elaborate live-action fantasy worlds he’s inhabited of late, it’s plain to see what might have personally drawn him to the story of a shy, stifled artist whose creations captivated many with their eccentric fusion of the tender and the grotesque. And while there may be no overtly supernatural trappings in evidence, Burton, reteaming with his “Ed Wood” writing duo of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (whose other biopic credits include “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and “Man on the Moon”), has effectively rendered the story as a sort of 20th-century fairy tale, about a sweet damsel in distress locked away by an evil enchanter who somehow manages to keep her and the outside world under his spell for more than a decade.

Reinforcing the storybook feel, the events are narrated by a side character, real-life San Francisco Examiner columnist Dick Nolan (Danny Huston), who offers pithy but clunky observations about the overweening sexism of the era and the limited options available to a Christian single mother and divorcee like Margaret Doris Hawkins Ulbrich (a blonde-wigged Adams). That presumably explains why she seems so quiveringly fragile when we first meet her in Northern California in 1958, frantically packing her things and, along with her young daughter, Jane (Delaney Raye), leaving her never-seen first husband.

With little money and no real plan, Margaret moves with Jane to San Francisco, setting up shop at an outdoor art fair and displaying her signature paintings of forlorn-looking children with abnormally large, soulful peepers. These in turn catch the eye of the smooth-talking Walter Keane (Waltz), a successful real-estate man who has made the pursuit of art his life’s passion, in a manner of speaking. Sweeping the naive Margaret off her feet with his intoxicating tales of having lived and painted in Paris, where he studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and drew inspiration for his many Montmartre street scenes, Walter seems too good to be true — partly because he’s a known womanizer, as Margaret’s only friend (Krysten Ritter) can attest, but also because Waltz’s wolfish, trust-me grin is a clear tipoff.

But Margaret is anxious for a better life, desperate to keep custody of Jane and genuinely smitten with Walter, so she swiftly accepts his proposal of marriage. Not long after a blissful Hawaii wedding and honeymoon, Walter, with his keen talent for showmanship and self-promotion, begins shopping their paintings around San Francisco, eventually persuading local impresario Enrico Banducci (Jon Polito) to display them near the restrooms in his famous nightclub, the hungry i. But when passersby ignore Walter’s work and instead find themselves gravitating toward Margaret’s big-eyed waifs, he begins openly claiming credit for the latter, which his wife has made the mistake of signing with her new married name, “Keane.”

In the film’s pivotal stretch, Margaret learns the full extent of her husband’s fabrications, but finds herself too shocked, betrayed and frightened to reveal the paintings’ true authorship. It’s easy enough to believe that her courage and instinctive honesty might fail her in the moment, and that she might become a willing participant in a deception that Walter says is no big deal, and yet somehow crucial to the success of their operation (“People don’t buy lady art,” he notes). It’s also understandable why the lie might become harder and harder to expose as her work becomes a cultural phenomenon. Before long, Walter is opening his own gallery; selling countless prints, posters and postcards; discussing the motivations behind his art on television; earning a sly endorsement from no less a lover of consumerist art than Andy Warhol and seizing every opportunity to present paintings to politicians, dignitaries and movie stars, such as Joan Crawford.

The problem is that on some level, despite this carefully orchestrated flurry of activity, “Big Eyes” doesn’t seem to trust either the factual truth or the emotional logic of the dilemma it’s showing us. Shifting uncertainly between exaggerated comedy and tense domestic drama (and propelled both ways by Danny Elfman’s churning score), the film skips along on the surface, never really approximating the texture of an actual, lived-in marriage, or the complexities of a family situation where a woman would feel compelled to lie to her own daughter (played as a teenager by Madeleine Arthur), who’s clearly too wise and perceptive to be so fooled. And whenever Margaret’s pained reactions and increasingly bitter, sarcastic exchanges with Walter aren’t deemed expressive enough, Nolan’s narration is on hand to spell out the obvious (“Now the cover-up was worse than the crime!”).

Although saddled with similarly on-the-nose dialogue and hemmed in by the essentially passive nature of her role, Adams manages to supply the film with a compelling center, showing Margaret’s tireless painting to be at once a concession to Walter’s demands, a vital creative outlet and an eloquent act of defiance. Increasingly, her paintings seem to express the silent outrage that their creator cannot, which makes it all the more unnecessary when the film has her experience visions of big-eyed people staring at her in public, in a mannered attempt to suggest her increasing guilt and anxiety over the situation.

Her doll-like fragility eventually giving way to a hard-won resilience, Adams’ Margaret is an effortlessly sympathetic figure. Then again, one might well feel sympathy for anyone with the misfortune of being married to Walter Keane, played by Waltz with the sort of aggressive showboating intensity that entertains initially, but eventually gives the picture almost no room to breathe. This becomes especially apparent during the film’s second half, which includes a fiery confrontation and an amusingly over-the-top courtroom drama (presided over by a fine James Saito as the judge), and Walter goes from weasel-with-an-easel to raving psycho to clownish performance artist. A certain hamminess is built into the role, but Waltz never vanishes into it; his self-amused grin and inimitable vocal and verbal delivery make it virtually impossible to see the character for the character actor.

In its smartest touch, the film makes time for the voices of various art-world tastemakers — namely, a local gallery curator (Jason Schwartzman) and the New York Times art critic John Canaday (a delightful Terence Stamp) — who form a sort of dryly funny Greek chorus, reacting with unconcealed horror to the massive success of the Keane paintings, which Canaday witheringly describes as “an infinity of kitsch.” This is the second movie in as many months (after “Birdman”) to feature a heated argument between a Times reviewer and the object of his or her derision, and it’s wise enough to view Margaret Keane’s legacy with a measure of critical detachment, acknowledging the porous boundary between art and kitsch, the frequent clash of populist and elitist sensibilities and the inherent subjectivity of a spectator’s response.

Despite its relatively realistic setting and restrained use of visual effects, Burton’s 17th feature as a director is as meticulously designed as one would expect. Taking advantage of splendid views of San Francisco (including the Palace of Fine Arts, where the real Margaret Keane can be seen seated on a bench in the background) and Hawaii, where much of the later action is set, d.p. Bruno Delbonnel’s images boast a warmth and richness of color appropriate to the film’s subject, amplified by the vivid period detailing of Rick Heinrichs’ production design and Colleen Atwood’s costumes.

Film Review: 'Big Eyes'

Reviewed at Weinstein Co. screening room, Beverly Hills, Nov. 13, 2014. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 106 MIN.


A Weinstein Co. release and presentation of a Tim Burton/Electric City Entertainment production. Produced by Lynette Howell, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, Burton. Executive producers, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Jamie Patricof, Katterli Frauenfelder, Derek Frey.


Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski. Camera (Technicolor), Bruno Delbonnel; editor, JC Bond; music, Danny Elfman; production designer, Rick Heinrichs; supervising art director, Chris August; set designers, costume designer, Colleen Atwood; sound, Chris Duesterdiek; supervising sound editors, Oliver Tarney, Bjorn Ole Schroeder; re-recording mixers, Michael Semanick, Tom Johnson; special effects coordinator, Sean House; visual effects supervisors, Mark Stetson, Ralph Maiers; visual effects producer, Lauren Weidel; visual effects, Zoic Studios; stunt coordinators, Scott Nicholson, Rocky Capella; line producer, Brendan Ferguson; assistant director, Katterli Frauenfelder; casting, Jeanne McCarthy, Nicole Abellera.


Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Jon Polito, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp, Delaney Raye, Madeleine Arthur. (English, French, Italian dialogue)

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  1. The film raises interesting questions about the human talent. In this case, it is the author reveals his real “I” through the beautiful and quirky drawings eyes. I would recommend this movie for me caused a willingness to learning how to draw.

  2. charsolo says:

    Not since Danny Huston’s Dad’s Moulin Rouge have I seen art direction brilliantly parallel the style of the artist depicted in a biopic – understated, overstated, simplified, other-worldly, normal/bizarre, even thw colors and understated/exaggerated performances and allusions to warhol/art critics/self perpetuating mythical creations like Joan Crawford and beat SF – so whatever the truth is and whatever the critics say make this movie a future cult fave w endless ramifications ….. or not

  3. Dirk says:

    Great review of a film I enjoyed immensely–while it’s true that the movie may lack the psychological reality of such an oppressive marriage, it still has much to enjoy, including the cartoonish magic realism that permeates the entire narrative. The exaggerated elements of the film encourage its obvious allegorical impactions and also make it quite humorous at times. I’m also intrigued by the fact that Burton magnified the size of Johnny Depp’s eyes in Burton’s Alice. I think many viewers are a little too eager to find fault with Burton because he likes to make his movies visually appealing, but I like the narrative vacillations between cartoonish magic realism and something closer to psychological realism.

    Also appreciate the addendum from Keane’s daughter recounting her experience of the Keane marriage; it shows the Burton played fast and loose with the truth, but, big deal, so did Shakespeare in Macbeth and the rest of his historical plays.

  4. KEANE Family says:

    Despite our best efforts, the Keane Family has been unsuccessful in opening a dialogue with the creators of the film “Big Eyes”. All of our communications to date have gone unanswered. We are here to dispel the myths perpetuated by the media.


    Saturday, 20 December 2014

    Press Release: Official Statement by Susan Hale Keane, Daughter of Walter Stanley Keane

    Born in 1947, I am Susan Keane, daughter of Barbara and Walter Keane.

    Following the traumatic death of my brother Stanley, and a highly successful joint venture in real estate, throughout the late 40s and early 50s, my parents and I lived in post WW2 Europe, while maintaining a home in Berkeley, California, designed by Julia Morgan, built in 1906.

    During that time, my mother, in pursuit of a PhD, studied cooking at Le Cordon Bleu, fashion design with couturiers including Edwar Sene, and Universität Heidelberg, while my father studied painting at École des Beaux-Arts and L’Académie de la Grand Chaumière in Paris.

    Initially speaking an amalgamation of 5 languages, I learned to draw and paint alongside my father from an early age.

    During 1949, in the ballroom of our Berkeley mansion “Elmwood House”, I watched my parents create, “Susie Keane’s Puppeteens”, “big eyed” wooden puppets, hand painted by Walter, with clothing designed and sewn by Barbara. Adorned in an ornately illustrated box, accompanied by a book and language record set, these sold in San Francisco, New York and London, at high end department and toy stores including Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, I Magnin and FAO Schwartz, as seen in this 1951 edition of UK’s House & Garden magazine.

    In 1950 my mother Barbara became department head of dress design at UC Berkeley, while Walter painted full time. I observed my father’s friendship with Berkeley painter Robert Watson to be a profound influence on both my own and Walter’s evolving style, as he shifted his early focus from street scenes and nudes, to ominous ethereal imagery of exaggerated perspective.

    After my parents filed for divorce in 1953, my father and I met Peggy (Margaret Doris Hawkins Ulbrich), during an exhibition of Walter’s paintings.

    At that time, Mrs Ulbrich, a former New York baby furniture factory worker, made her living painting names on neckties, in cooperation with her husband Frank, supplemented by quick realistic portrait sketches of passers by at street fairs. None of her work to date had “big eyes”.

    Soon, Mrs Ulbrich moved in with my father, and he took her on as his “Eliza Doolittle” and artistic apprentice.

    Later, Mrs Ulbrich filed for a divorce from her husband Frank, and swiftly married my father in 1955. Her daughter Jane moved in, and she and Margaret learned to paint under my father’s tutelage. I witnessed the evolution of their artistic process.

    Walter encouraged Margaret to develop a style beyond realism, educating and immersing her in the works of old masters for inspiration. She was a slim brunette, wearing a blonde wig. Her initial art consisted of idealized self portraits of slender ladies exclusively featuring small almond shaped eyes, like her own.

    My father would often impart to us, his vast knowledge of color, perspective, texture, artistic techniques, art history, etc, repeatedly impressing upon us, the vital impact of “the eyes”. His guidance made a strong impression on me as my own work evolved.

    My father was an avid photographer, using a cutting edge Hasselblad. A very large opaque projector was purchased for Margaret, set up in a dark room adjoined to the sunny painting studio. With this tool, a highly detailed image could be projected on canvas from a photograph. A skilled illustrator, Margaret was able to trace a portrait in 15 minutes. This projection method has frequently been utilised in art forgery, as it facilitates replication of fine brush strokes.

    Though her initial paintings were primitive, Margaret demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for mimicry, and quickly learned to paint with exceptional precision.

    While her execution was flawless, Margaret never showed any aptitude for originality, and her main body of work consisted of Modigliani pastiches blended with other borrowed influences, supplemented by a series of commissioned photorealistic portraits.

    My father, beginning with his established bar scene series, occasionally engaged her new found skills to assist him on paintings entirely of his own concept, design and creative authorship. He openly publicised her contributions to his works, proudly promoting her name. Their artist/assistant relationship was never a secret during the years they worked together, their early collaborative works signed “Margaret and Walter KEANE” and MW KEANE, with independent works signed W KEANE and KEANE, M Keane and MDH Keane.

    Margaret used very soft sable brushes, along with a sable fan brush to blend her colours. This results in a very thin layer of paint (no texture) which takes only few days to dry. From early on, it was disclosed to the press that Margaret added supplementary brush strokes to the figures of some of Walter’s paintings.

    Over time, she adopted his “big eye” motif, gradually incorporating it into her own Modigliani-style work.

    As a professional fine oil painter, intimately familiar with the historic body of work for both artists, and a first hand witness to the creation and evolution of these works, I am uniquely qualified to offer an artistic analysis of the autonomous and collaborative elements of the works of Margaret McGuire and Walter Keane. I also had the opportunity to examine Walter’s work in great detail while performing an archival restoration of “Alone” in the late 80s.

    Much of Walter’s work predominantly features rough textured brush strokes and imperfections, often using a palette knife, a conscious and deliberate use of contrasting cool and warm colour scheme, exaggerated perspective that stretches on to infinity, sparse asymmetrical balanced composition with clean silhouettes emphasizing negative space, the background frames the subject and draws the viewer’s eye using leading lines, use of strong shadow and highlight.

    Margaret’s work features smooth blended precision brush strokes, a rainbow of primary colors, flat two dimensional backgrounds, crowded symmetrical composition, the subjects are homogenous with the background, the dense background interrupts competes and merges with the overlapping subjects, monotone lighting, understated or void of shadows.

    Walter’s work is also structurally and stylistically distinct from Margaret’s later homages attempting to approximate his art.

    More importantly however, it is vital to mention that Walter was not a violent man, nor a bully. If anything, he was the most joyful and gentle person I’ve known. Margaret’s depiction of death threats, discord and abuse are entirely fictitious. Though, I have no doubt my father’s philandering was a high price for her to pay for fame and affluence.

    Towards the end of Walter and Margaret’s marriage, my father met Joan on a United Airlines flight to New York.

    Upon learning of his courtship, a woman scorned, Margaret promptly moved to Hawaii in 1964 with married father of 10, publicist/reporter Dan McGuire. The next year, 1965, Walter and Margaret divorced. Following Dan’s divorce, Margaret remarried in 1966.

    In 1969 Walter married Joan. I had been exceptionally close to my father up to that point. I heard little from him thereafter. Their daughter Chantal was born in 1970, followed by the birth of their son Sascha in 1973. My heartbreak over this abrupt transition led to our estrangement, which lasted the majority of his remaining years. I can only imagine Margaret’s false claims stem from a similar bitter heartbreak, financial distress, or both.

    Regardless of their personal differences, compelling each to later discredit the other, Walter, was indeed the one to initially conceive and create “big eye” art, long before he met Margaret. First and foremost, he was an ideas man. From his crude beginnings, Margaret’s blossoming technical skills contributed to an evolved quality that celebrated his vision, and together they manifested a result which commercially exceeded a level of success greater than what either artist was able to achieve on their own, before or since.

    Though uncelebrated, Walter had a diverse body of work that expanded well beyond the confines of his “waif” theme.

    • mecha says:

      This sounds like lie on top of lie. I
      f he was so great at painting why didn’t he just do it in court when the judged ordered it?
      it was simple for Margaret.
      Such a fantastical tale, guess we never want to think I’ll of our loved ones. Smdh

    • Damara says:

      Jane, Margaret and Dan were my neighbors for many years in Hawaii on Halekoa Drive. Jane and I were good friends and we attended Kalani High school together. Because of that I spent a lot of time in their home. Margaret always was, and continues to be, a kind, good person. She painted every day in a little attic-like studio next to her upstairs bedroom. I saw her paint daily, saw her works-in-progress and finished pieces as she completed them, and I witnessed this for YEARS. She was and still is a very fine artist. I read the account of Susan Keane here and on the link she supplied. I did not know Walter but I know that Margaret is the artist that was and still is, responsible for painting the big-eyed children…because I saw her alone paint them. As I understand it, Walter mainly painted street scenes, not people. As a Jehovah’s Witness, one of the basic things I know about them is that they do not lie. I have a number of JW friends and they are exceptionally good people (I am not a JW but I know many due to knowing Margaret and Jane). It is unfortunate that Susan Keane attempts to perpetuate the untruths of her father here and on other sites.

  5. Ken Eisner, where have you been?! I miss you! Pls send me your contact eml Very happy to hear from you!!!! :))))

  6. Ken Eisner says:

    “This is the second movie in as many months (after ‘Birdman’) to feature a heated argument between a Times reviewer and the object of his or her derision…” And now there’s another, Justin: “Top Five” features an ongoing love/hate thing between the critic and her subject. Not one of these three seems to grasp how criticism or editorial policies actually work, and Rock’s movie has a pseudonymous subplot that’s truly ridiculous. (Oh, and hello there, Holly Carinci! Madeleine Arthur is very good; they must have noticed her Amanda Seyfried-like eyes.)

  7. Julian says:

    I have to admit that your review invokes some of the fears I had for the film after seeing the trailer. I’m beginning to grow tired of Waltz’s scenery-chewing; it’s kind of a let-me-make-everything-completely-broad-and-in-your-face, because-that’s-what-gets-you-an-Oscar kind of approach (the Academy isn’t big on subtlety). He has talent, as does Amy Adams, but I’ll have to wait for a friend to see this first and get his feedback before I risk venturing out. Burton’s touch has been shaky for a while now.

  8. Thank you for mentioning my young client, Madeleine Arthur, Justin :)

  9. Steve UK says:

    Appreciate the review but as a Burton fan I’m looking forward to this. I’m just glad he let his ‘big eyed’ wife out of this one.

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