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Big Eyes (2014)

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Score: 5/10

Genre: Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 46 min.

Release Date: December 25th, 2014 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Tim Burton Actors: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp, Danny Huston, Jon Polito, Madeleine Arthur

I

n 1958, Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) flees from her husband – an unheard-of separation that certainly bodes ill for a single woman in the ‘50s. She has no job or prospects but totes her young daughter Jane (Delaney Raye) with her to North Beach, San Francisco. There, she gets a job painting cribs at a furniture company and attempts to sell portraits at local art fairs. When the very suave Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) swoops in with compliments and yarns about spontaneously packing up and heading to Paris to pursue art, adventurously thriving only on bread and wine, Margaret is hooked. In short time, they fly to Hawaii to be wed.

Walter isn’t much of an artist, admitting to abandoning the idea of supporting himself solely on that trade and resorting to selling real estate. He’s quite successful in that endeavor (a good provider), giving Margaret even further motivation to stay with him (later, it leads to a bit of an inconsistency when it appears that they need money from their hobbies to purchase a house). The allure of wealth, as demonstrated time and again in film, is substantial.

But Walter refuses to give up on his dream of becoming a renowned painter; when he’s turned down by the very modern and ritzy “The Gallery” (by the owner, played by Jason Schwartzman), he rents the walls of Enrico Banducci’s (Jon Polito) jazz nightclub for exhibition space. After unsubtle, histrionic salesmanship by Keane and publicity from the Examiner’s Dick Nolan (Danny Huston, who unnecessarily and, based on his character’s nearly inconsequential presence, unimportantly narrates), paintings begin to sell. But the interest isn’t in Keane’s French cityscapes. It’s in Margaret’s hobo-kid portraits – each featuring somber young subjects with grotesquely enormous eyes. The problem arises when Keane convinces Margaret that people will only buy works from male artists and that he needs to take credit for her paintings (coincidentally reversing a subplot from Fritz Lang’s “Scarlet Street” [1945]). “Sadly, people don’t buy lady art.”

“Looks like you’ve painted yourself into a corner,” Margaret comments, as Walter prepares for an interview for which he must fabricate a reason for his infatuation with little girls with gargantuan peepers. In reality, Margaret is the one who has put herself in a bind; she’s emotionally connected to the paintings but realizes the potential of Kean’s showmanship and the sexist nature of businessmen. In 1960, the Keane Gallery opens and Margaret comforts herself with the knowledge that, thanks to her paintings’ popularity, Jane has a college fund. And by 1963, their Woodside, California residence sits on two acres, with five bedrooms, a pool, a wet bar, and plenty of other lavish extravagances. But a story about a couple committing fraud for the sake of money definitely isn’t a new concept – nor is their generic romancing prior to Margaret’s comprehension of Walter’s destructive obsession with fame, or her own regret at the copiousness of dishonesty and lies.

“Big Eyes” is by far the least Burtonesque film ever directed by Tim Burton. He’s clearly trying his hand at a plainer, more normal drama, straying away from the dark fairytales and macabre thrillers he’s so famous for helming. In “Big Eyes,” there isn’t even an appearance by Burton regulars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, though Burton has again employed cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (“Dark Shadows”), who does wonders with astonishingly vibrant colors, as if every shot purposely mimics pastoral paintings, and composer Danny Elfman, whose average score disappears amidst the action.

For this toned down project, Burton has chosen an amusing biographical tale about human weakness and hard-won redemption, infused with decidedly cinematic points of violent jealousy and a comedic courtroom showdown. It’s like the motif of “Rumpelstiltskin” was transported into a modern American setting (obviously devoid of the fantasy and witchcraft). But even during its best moments, the film is a simple, small, pleasant digression, studded with occasionally compelling focuses on the biases of a specific time period, a familiar touch of marital deterioration, and the drastic differences between original art and commercial products (cheap reproductions, posters, and postcards that consumers can’t get enough of). Although “Big Eyes” is a competent picture, it’s strangely unfitting for Burton’s signature creativity and gothic flamboyance.

– Mike Massie

 



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