Big Eyes Review – Delivers Wide Eyed Wonderment

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Big Eyes, from The Weinstein Company and Tim Burton Productions, brings to the screen the unusual and true story of the largest art fraud in American history as seen through the eyes of 1960's artist Margaret Keane.


Directed by the legendary Tim Burton, Big Eyes stars Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Jon Pulito, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp and was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Jaraszewski.

With fabled voice over providing the intro description we meet Margaret Ulbrich, frantically gathering her possessions, a single suitcase and a dozen paintings, each removed with intent, as voice over describes the beginnings of a life change for Margaret, the painter, the artist.

With her daughter, Jane, Margaret, played to perfection by the versatile Amy Adams, exits suburbia as the need to express outweighs convention they end up in a beach town near San Francisco. The birthplace of the beat generation, Howl, the beat poets and the explosion of color that would become the 1960's psychedelic generation, where Campbell Soup Cans fetch millions and Pop Art is the rage.  

We meet Walter, played by Christoph Waltz who is masterful in his role, a weekend artist, a wanna be, with little artistic talent but huge bravado, and as he stumbles onto Margaret sketching for pennies in the park, he has found his passion and quickly proposes.

She agreed, after a whirlwind courtship, and tired of scraping two pennies together, and said yes.

Thus begins the journey of artist Margaret Keane and her con artist, larger than life, salesperson, showman, PR wizard, husband, Walter, who passed himself off for a decade as the author of the waif works known as "Big Eye" paintings.

Margaret was an innocent soul, a natural artist, perfecting her craft she studied in a time and era when women were asked if "your husband was okay with you working." Her passion consumed her, she was happiest, when she painted and was able to shut the world out.

As any artist knows either early or too late, business is business and an artist is a business. Margaret understood casually and the film doesn't pinpoint a moment and so we don't know if her desire was major fame or if she had a resigned belief, an innate knowledge that fame would arrive and she would paint and fame would show up.

Of course, she has no idea until she stumbled in unannounced the credit for her work was being cunningly stolen by the larger than life personality of Walter, who is certainly skillful, an expert, as much as Waltz is in portraying him, at marketing.

The fact that he finally had something of clear value with all he did possess he lacked what all analytic brains hope for one simple touch of the creativity that Margaret possessed.

It wasn't enough that he understood marketing, he gets his cake and honestly gets to eat it too! He finally is recognized as the artist! With a deal with a local reporter, played by Danny Huston, Walter becomes the talk of the art world and was ready with award show wave, speech, and persona to take over.

Oddly, with a ten year major fraud in place, and the world believing the Big Eyed Waif paintings of the world, the lost souls, which could bring on even greater interpretation, and interpretation wasn't simply beat season musing as the world paused for a moment but not any deeper, especially for women.

Men, of course, could offer the absurdist interpretation of artistic expression, which was necessary as the world wanted Walter. He needed the starving artist story, intelligent and believable tales, taller than the one he was living, complete with possible and strong enough so the room would explode as if a rocket had been released. Leaving others to wonder what the world was seeing.

Margaret Keane had a searching soul and it was evident from the beginning of the film. She was willing to leave anything that restrained her to pursue her art, not caring or even considering the costs or where the money would come from. She believed in her art and someone through divine intervention the necessities would be there.

Her spiritual journey is depicted through early visits from the Jehovah's Witness who, show up after her world apparently falls apart and a fight or flight pattern revisits her and she flees, again in the middle of the night. It would be the last time Margaret Keane runs from confrontation.

Tim Burton who, before the Academy Award nominated stop gap animated Walt Disney Animation feature Frankenweenie, seemed somewhat fantastical. With Big Eyes as a follow up, I was surprised as the waif paintings become the whimsical expression in this, a live action, film. His direction is exceptional.

Uniquely understanding Margaret Keane, I felt the writers were able to capture her life as an artist, a mother, a wife and more importantly the depth of artistic expression and what it meant to her.

She has a never ending well of expression. Take from her and she finds a new and equally expressive vein. Not a one hit wonder. The public on the other were singularly focused on Pop Art and saturating the market, oddly I think I remember seeing a Big Eyed Waif as a child. It was modern, hip, trendy mass marketed, available and inexpensive. Art appreciation took on a whole new realm.

Walter, even Margaret admits, she would not be famous without him. He was a masterful marketer and case studies in shifting the attention of the public should be his legacy.

He turned a wide eyed waif paintings and with it an unknown female artist in a time when females had their place, even in the hippest circles, into a global phenomenon. His only fault not keeping his cash machine happy and his ego in check. Stressing the machine was his downfall, I think Margaret's life was taking a different spiritual course.

Her through line in confession of her part in the fraud was "I lied to my child" the entire ten year fraud was reduced to the single most important relationship to her and quite honestly the least important person judicially.

Walter on the other hand understood the scope of the mass fraud they had perpetrated and with an iron fist dominated her with the price she would pay, until the relationship with her daughter, Jane, drove her to make the changes to escape the burden of lies that was killing her and the expression.

Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz are dynamic together. I often think it is harder to be restrained in expression to which Ms. Adams does very well.  She captures the essence of the time and in particular the dynamics of her situation.

Christoph Waltz is larger than life - he fills the screen without overpowering their scenes together, especially as a domineering and abusive husband controlling the soul of Margaret, breaking the spirit, enslaving.  

Big Eyes is another triumph for Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz and Tim Burton. Big Eyes is inspiring for women, liberating for artists, and comes with a cast of fanciful, quirky, unusual, art world, characters.

Big Eyes opens in select markets Christmas Day! 

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