Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski
Starring: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Krysten Ritter and Jason Schwartzman
Is it art or is it trash?
Tim Burton’s latest poses this hyperbolic question about the paintings of Margaret Keane several times, but he isn’t (I’m sorry) too keen on exploring it. Instead, he renders the answer unimportant and focuses on a more generic conflict: Keane (Amy Adams) finding the courage to fight her husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) for the right to her artwork after years of letting him take credit for it so it would sell. Walter uses traditional 1960s gender roles against his wife so he can pretend her work is his, at the same time pretending like he’s doing her a favor by getting her paintings out to the public. That doesn’t sound more generic, but when the movie introduces questions that would make it more interesting and then ignores them, the narrative’s single-mindedness becomes annoying.
Burton also doesn’t allow Keane to grapple with anything that would make her character anything other than a saint. There’s a brief shot where she reads a brutal pan by a New York Times critic (Terence Stamp), and shame convincingly washes over Adams’ face for a split second before it cuts away to Walter’s theatrical rampage about the article. The inspiration for her lawsuit against Walter is her joining the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but the script doesn’t delve into it beyond a couple of simple verses; it becomes a way to take the story to its anti-climatic courtroom climax, and little else.
Denying Margaret Keane that complexity makes the movie’s focus on gender roles, while obviously well-intentioned, a bit reductive. Walter is a maniacal character, to be sure, but he’s also fully formed. Burton and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski go to great lengths to show his desperation, and Waltz, much like in Inglourious Basterds, is terrific at infusing his character’s natural theatricality with both sinister and pathetic undertones.
The paintings are deemed kitsch and dismissed by the Times critic and a high-end gallery owner (Jason Schwartzman), and many of the fans of Keane’s work are portrayed as giggling, mindless hordes who would rather gobble up cheaper reprints of the paintings than purchase the original. However, Burton takes Margaret’s passion and her torment seriously even if her art becomes a background decoration for a less interesting domestic drama.
That sincerity is the movie’s biggest asset; Adams creates a convincingly tortured soul out of Keane despite the story’s simplistic treatment and fittingly, Burton focuses on the actress’ endlessly sad eyes. When she faces off against her husband in court for the right to her work, it comes off as a quiet victory for a quietly melancholic woman. The subdued ending resonates despite, or maybe because of, Waltz’s overacting as Walter quickly realizes his bullshit will no longer stick.
All of that 1960s federal courtroom drama is preceded by a montage where the minor characters react to finding out Margaret is the real painter. The Times critic is exasperated and doesn’t quite know what to say; Schwartzman’s character says something like “Who would want credit for that?” That moment is one of the glimpses of a more interesting movie about how even bad art still comes from the heart, but it never breaks free from the rest of Big Eyes’ well polished if dull story.