Penned by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski – who are interestingly the same screenwriting duo who wrote Ed Wood, another down-to-Earth Burton film – Big Eyes is based on the true story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams); a struggling painter with a daughter to look after, she meets and promptly marries the charming Walter (Christoph Waltz), a painter with little talent but a flair for selling. Soon Walter is taking credit for his other half’s work, and as the paintings get more and more popular in the 1960’s the faux artist becomes ever more exploitative.
That’s the simple version of the synopsis; in actuality there’s a lot of complexity to unravel here, from the personal nature of art to the fact that you need to have more than just a quality product to get recognised. Both of those through-lines are very relevant and well depicted here, a pivotal scene wherein Walter steps in to speak to a ‘Keane’ admirer as Margaret freezes summing up the identity leeching con in brutal fashion.
Though Walter’s descent into over-the-top caricature feels a little sudden, Waltz is entertaining in the role. A Tarantino veteran, the actor has said numerous times that he never views any of the characters he plays as ‘bad guys’, and – at least for the first 45 minutes or so – he succeeds in bringing different shades to Walter. Matching him every step of the way is Adams, who sucks us in to every dilemma Margaret faces with consummate ease, skilfully modulating the degrees by which Margaret loses and then regains her confidence.
Elsewhere, Krysten Ritter never seems to age as Margaret’s best friend DeAnn, who pops up too intermittently for the relationship to have substantial weight. It’s a shame too, as it would have provided the perfect avenue with which to get a deeper perspective on Margaret’s thoughts. The same holds true of the grossly underserved mother-daughter bond, which is mostly reduced to the odd fleeting sentence about how they’ve drifted apart in the years since Walter entered their lives. As for Danny Huston’s narrator, you can take away each one of his scenes and the effect on the movie overall would be minuscule.
With a narrative that could’ve used more depth and subtlety, Big Eyes is no masterpiece. At its best though, Burton’s latest piece of art is an enjoyable, impressively acted and thought-provoking watch.