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‘Big Eyes’ is eye-opening exposé

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media

At some point, you’ve no doubt seen those depictions of bizarrely wide-eyed waifs by Margaret Keane. “Big Eyes,” the latest film from Tim Burton, explores the story behind this kitschy genre.

As the film opens in Northern California suburbia circa 1958, Margaret (Amy Adams) is fleeing an oppressive marriage. With her school-aged daughter, Jane (Delaney Raye) in tow, Margaret hurriedly jumps in the car and drives away to San Francisco.

Upon arrival, Margaret struggles to support herself and her daughter. After all, she has only worked as a housewife and has no résumé. Eventually, she lands a job, working for a furniture company. In her spare time, Margaret paints her anatomically distorted portraits of young children.

Weekends, Margaret tries to sell her paintings at glorified flea markets. There, she is approached by man, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz). He introduces himself as a real estate agent, who is pursuing his own muse as a painter of Parisian street scenes. Walter nostalgically recounts his days in Montmartre as the inspiration for his artwork.

Screen capture from the trailer to the movie "Big Eyes" at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xD9uTlh5hI

Screen capture from the trailer to the movie “Big Eyes” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xD9uTlh5hI

Before long, the two marry. Although Walter continues to peddle his own collection, he discovers that only Margaret’s work is saleable. He decides to take credit for her work. Margaret is understandably appalled. Unfazed, Walter rationalizes, “lady art doesn’t sell.” Walter contends that he is simply trying to provide the family with a better life.

Walter proves to be a master of marketing. Eventually, he opens his own gallery. Walter concocts remunerative methodologies to sell prints, posters, and postcards of his wife’s work. How long will Margaret allow Walter to take the credit for her work?

Amy Adams adroitly captures a submissive woman from a bygone era, who reflexively acquiesces to her husband’s fiat.  Christoph Waltz exudes unctuous charm as a predatory fraud-monger. The supporting cast includes Danny Huston as a gossip columnist, always eager for a scoop; Jason Schwartzman as a rival gallery owner, who is incredulous at the commercial appeal of Keane’s renderings; and John Polito as a local night club owner.

Who better to explore the story behind this off-beat phenomenon than the convention-defying, visually-oriented Burton? For this particular film, Burton suppresses much of the exaggerated eccentricity evident in such prior works as “Mars Attacks!” and “Corpse Bride.” The result is a more subdued, realistic work, devoid of C.G.I.

Burton is a collector of Margaret Keane’s work. He commissioned Keane to do a portrait of his sweetheart, Helena Bonham Carter. So, he has an obvious personal bias with regard to the subject matter. Despite this, Burton provides a nicely balanced treatment of the debate surrounding the artistic merit of her paintings. He casts Terrence Stamp as John Canady, then the art critic for “The New York Times.”  As shown in the film, Canady assailed Keane’s work as, “synthetic hack work” and “an infinity of kirsch.” Burton leaves it to the viewer to form their own assessment.

Burton has recruited a top-notch production team. French cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel, has a filmography that includes working with Jean-Pierre Jeunet on “Amelie” and “A Very Long Engagement,” then with Burton on “Dark Shadows.” Here, he provides the requisite visual panache. His shots of San Francisco, particularly those outside the Palace of Fine Arts, and of Hawaii are beautiful to behold. Former Oingo Boingo frontman, Danny Elfman, has a long history of collaboration with Burton. Going back to Burton’s debut feature, “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” Elfman has scored all but two of the director’s nineteen studio films. Production designer, Rick Heinrichs met Burton back when the two were both working at Disney Studios. He has often worked with Burton as well as the Coen brothers on “The Big Lebowski” and “Fargo.”  Costume designer, Colleen Atwood, is also a veteran of the “Dark Shadows” and numerous other shoots. She has been nominated for ten Academy Awards, wining thrice. Between Heinrichs’ set design and Atwood’s period fashions, “Big Eyes” is infused with a vivid sense of time and place. In addition, Lana Del Rey composed and sings the film’s title song.

With strong acting and production values, “Big Eyes” is an engaing film. This eye-opening exposé raises some important questions about the nature of gender roles and the commercial imperative in the art market. However, “Big Eyes” fails to provide totally satisfying answers.

“Big Eyes”  *** PG-13 (for thematic elements and brief strong language)

Film critic Nathan Lerner sees  more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

 

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