A year ago, Exene Cervenka, singer for the LA punk band X, sold off some of her old junk online, and I noted that she collected the same wacky '50s/'60s/'70s kitsch that my old CalArts roommates did. Little wonder: my roomies were born in 1961; Cervenka in 1956. They belong to a specific generation of artist-hipsters that simultaneously mock and cherish the tacky pop culture of their childhood.
Tim Burton, born in 1958, is of that generation too. Between studio potboilers like Alice in Wonderland and Planet of the Apes, his own fascination with mid-century kitsch has fueled a number of smaller, more personal films. The problem, of course, is that mainstream audiences aren't in on the joke. After all, who besides those fiftysomething artist-hipsters is really familiar with Ed Wood, the Mars Attacks! trading cards, the vampire soap opera Dark Shadows... or the ultra-kitschy paintings of Margaret Keane, the subject of Big Eyes?
It's not that this straightforward biopic will leave anybody in the dark. But for those who never knew or cared much about the fleeting popularity of Keane's cartoony portraits of doe-eyed waifs, the film will leave them shrugging.
Part of the problem is its overly simplistic plot: Margaret (Amy Adams), a young painter and single mom, moves to San Francisco in the 1950s and takes up with Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a smarmy businessman who claims to be a painter as well. They marry, Margaret's big eyes paintings get noticed, Walter takes the credit for her work because nobody would buy "lady art", and so it continues for a decade until Margaret gets fed up with her husband's money-minting charade.
And that's it. No role reversals or surprise twists here. As a result, it's hard to get involved in the story, especially as Keane's paintings are a mere footnote in art history. The film does explore issues of feminism, the question of what is "real" art, and the arbitrary nature of fame, but the punches don't land hard. It's maddening, as there is so much potential for greatness, like in the uncomfortable scene where Walter brainstorms with Margaret on how he should lie about "his" inspirations on television. I wish the film spent more time acknowledging the ethical vagaries within Walter and Margaret's arrangement.
Big Eyes is enjoyable enough. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and Burton's longtime production designer Rick Heinrichs give us a lush, pastel-colored San Francisco that is rich with detail. And the ever-appealing Adams once again delivers a solid performance. (It's amazing that Hollywood has not yet run out of wide-eyed innocents for her to play; it seems only David O. Russell will cast her as sexy, decisive women.) Austrian actor Waltz, however, is simply the wrong choice to play the Indiana-born Walter Keane. Waltz can be a thrilling performer, as his Oscar-winning turns in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained have shown, but his Keane is a broad caricature. Perhaps the real Walter really did stoop to some of the wild antics shown in the film – we only have Margaret's word to go on – but Waltz's scenery-chewing fails to convince us of Walter Keane's obvious persuasiveness and shrewdness. A director more comfortable with actors would have reined the actor in, and Big Eyes would have been a more believable portrait of this star-crossed couple.