Walter Keane liked women with large, uh, eyes. In the early ’60s he created an empire founded on paintings of sad children with massive moppet peepers. He was a pop icon, a talk show fixture and-in Tim Burton’s paint by numbers biographical drama-a sadistic Svengali who took credit for the work of his wife, Margaret, portrayed by Amy Adams in the most colorless role of her career.
Christoph Waltz plays him as a megalomaniac cad who sweet talks his bride into going along with the ruse because nobody buys “lady art” and, besides, “Your pocket, my pocket-what’s the difference?” One of the movie’s many problems is that it wants to have it both ways: It suggests Margaret was a browbeaten victim of her husband’s greed while making it clear she was a willing participant in the scam.
They meet at a San Francisco art fair and marry shortly thereafter. Walter makes the rounds to galleries in search of a showplace for his work and his wife’s. Jason Schwartzman has a one-note part as a snooty exhibitor but proves unable to do much with dialogue like “Clear out the clutter before the taste police arrive.”
Walter has better luck when he strikes a deal with the owner of a nightclub to rent space on his walls. The next thing he knows, everyone from suburban squares to movie stars are snapping up pictures of wide-eyed waifs as fast as Margaret can churn them out. Well before Warhol conceived of his factory, Walter brainstormed the mass reproduction of images on posters and post cards earning millions and, according to Life, making the paintings the most popular in the world.
The Keane saga is a fascinating one and Burton could’ve gone in any number of directions with it. Unfortunately, he chose the dullest. Instead of giving it the Ed Wood treatment (the picture’s scripted by the team responsible for the 1994 classic), for example, he inexplicably turns it into a Lifetime movie contorting the couple’s story into a feminist fable with far from convincing results.
Big Eyes is all Walter and no Margaret. Burton’s so intent on painting Keane as a cartoon creep he concocts scenes such as one in which Walter tries to burn down his house with his family inside rather than any offering insight into Margaret’s psychology or process. At one point, she’s asked why the giant eyes and Burton actually has her answer that they’re “windows to the soul.”
Two observations: First, Keane may not have painted those pictures but that doesn’t necessarily mean he didn’t suggest the feature that made them famous. Before Margaret, he was married to the designer Barbara Ingham, with whom he created a line of toys called Susie Keane’s Puppeteens (named after his first child). Walter painted the wooden dolls distinguished by-you guessed it-big eyes. I’m just saying.
Second, Burton doesn’t even pretend to approach the material without bias. He purchased the rights from Margaret. The screenplay’s writers have gone on record as being interested only in her version of events. Press accounts confirm efforts made by members of Walter’s family (he died in 2000) to provide documentation supporting his side of the story were rebuffed.
Add to that the fact that the filmmaker’s not only been collecting Keanes since the ’90s but has even commissioned portraits of his wife and others by Margaret and I think it may be fair to suggest a conflict of interest. Which might be a bigger problem were the film not so shallow, over the top and instantly forgettable; interest is unlikely to prove much of an issue.