Tim Burton paints promising ‘Big Eyes’ into a corner

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Tuesday, December 23, 2014 6:10pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Because he’s spent half his career sifting through the pop culture of the ’50s and ’60s (“Dark Shadows,” “Ed Wood,” “Mars Attacks,” etc.), Tim Burton is surely the ideal director to tackle the phenomenon of the Keane big eye paintings. Right?

Maybe the subject is a little too perfect, because Burton’s “Big Eyes” lacks something — a sense of sarcasm, or distance. Or maybe it’s just missing a couple of subplots.

Don’t remember the big eye paintings? You’re lucky, actually. But the script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski will catch us up.

We begin with a young divorced mother, Margaret (Amy Adams), who moves her daughter to the bohemian world of 1950s San Francisco. Shy Margaret is aggressively romanced by the dashing Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a street painter who boasts of his artsy days in Paris.

He gets their work onto the walls of jazz clubs, where Margaret’s paintings begin to sell. It’s more convenient for showboat Walter to take credit for the paintings, so (with Margaret’s consent) he does — they’re simply signed “Keane,” after all — and an industry is born.

The paintings become hugely popular (Joan Crawford had her portrait done, and Margaret made a mural for the 1964 World’s Fair). Today they’re collectible as kitsch.

Here’s the thing. Margaret’s paintings are mostly of bedraggled children with big eyes. Huge eyes. Freakishly large eyes.

As works of art, they’re horrifying. And you’d think Tim Burton would go to town with this, as he did with “Ed Wood.” That movie is a tribute to B-movie filmmaker Wood’s hilarious incompetence, but also a marvelous portrait of people living outside the mainstream.

“Big Eyes,” on the other hand, is neutral on the value of the Keane art. The film’s main idea — in fact its only idea — is how Margaret was completely dominated by Walter’s desire for money and fame, and how she battled to get credit for her own work.

Christoph Waltz gives an eccentric performance as Walter, but maybe that’s the direction the movie needed to go. Amy Adams is fine, but the character is rather bland (why was Margaret Keane obsessed with saucer-eyed waifs, anyway?).

The movie needs a complicating subplot, but there’s nothing else going on. And very little for supporting players like Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter or Terence Stamp to do.

The first half hour is great fun, but after that it keeps repeating itself. This is a missed opportunity to have fun with a wacky slice of Cold War-era craziness.

“Big Eyes” (2 stars)

The saga of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose portraits of big-eyed waifs were hugely popular in the ’50s and ’60s — and whose husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) took credit for the work. This should be great material for director Tim Burton, but the movie has only one idea — Margaret’s exploitation — which gets repeated over and over.

Rating: PG-13, for language, subject matter

Showing: Alderwood, Alderwood Mall, Everett Stadium, Marysville, Oak Tree, Sundance Cinemas Seattle, Cascade Mall

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