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.