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Big Eyes
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Eyes Have It"
3 stars

I remember first reading about the strange story of Walter and Margaret Keane in that most invaluable of tomes, Jane and Michael Stern's "The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste." He was an artist whose paintings of big-eyed waifs unexpectedly touched a nerve around the world--not with the art establishment, who largely found them to be tacky and maudlin, but with ordinary people--and became the basis of a staggering multi-million-dollar empire that included not only the paintings themselves but posters, postcards and other extremely lucrative products. She was the wife who also dabbled in art, according to the massive publicity apparatus surrounding Walter, but who largely kept to the sidelines until a few years after the divorce when she publicly claimed that she was the one who actually did all the big eye paintings and that Walter only took credit for the work and threatened her to keep her from exposing the truth. Eventually there was a trial that built to a wild climax in which paints and easels were brought into the courtroom and the Keanes were each given an hour to produce a big eye painting in full view of the courtroom.

Clearly, this was a story that was ripe for cinematic treatment, but how to approach it? Should it be a straightforward drama about the artistic process and the tragedy of not being able to connect with audiences through art despite all efforts while being forced to see other pull it off without even trying to do it. Should it be a wild satire recounting the weird backstory behind one of the oddest artistic fads of modern times? Should it be the inspiring drama of a once-oppressed woman who gradually finds the strength to stand up for herself and reclaim her personal and professional legacy after stifling both for decades? The trouble with "Big Eyes" is that instead of settling on one particular take and mining it for all it is worth, it employs a more scattershot method that flits from approach to approach and winds up leaving a lot of potentially interesting ideas on the table. This is frustrating because this is a project that would seem to have all the right people working on it on both sides of the camera and there are moments here and there where everything seems to click. However, one you think that it has finally pulled itself together, it inevitably winds up drifting once again.

The story opens in 1958 as housewife and amateur artist Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams), with young daughter Jane () in tow, flees her home and husband in order to set up a new life for herself in San Francisco. With no real job skills to speak of, Margaret tries to make a living by selling her paintings, all of which depict waifs with saucer-sized peepers that are on the verge of overflowing with tears, at local art fairs and this is where she makes the acquaintance of fellow artist Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a flamboyant type who works in real estate but yearns to one day become a famous painter. In little time, he sweeps Margaret off her feet with his grandiose manner and tales of the extended stay in Paris that inspired the portraits of Montmartre and while he might seem too good to be true to the outside eye--Margaret's one good friend (Krysten Ritter) informs her of his status as a local lothario--she is too bewitched and beguiled to notice and they are soon married.

One night, while exhibiting some of his paintings, along with a few of Margaret's, at a local nightclub, Walter discovers that the only ones that are attracting any notice are hers and since she has taken to signing them simply as "Keane," he impulsively takes credit for them in the midst of making a sale. When she discovers this, Margaret is upset and demands that he never do it again but he continues to take credit for his work, justifying his deception with all the money that is coming in and his declaration that "People don't buy lady art." Margaret decides to keep silent and watches in amazement as her paintings--which are derided as ghastly kitsch by such arbiters of good taste as a local hipster gallery owner (Jason Schwartman) and imperious "New York Times" art critic John Canaday (Terrence Stamp)--become first a local phenomenon and then, thanks to Walter's genius for self-promotion, a national one as well as celebrities like Joan Crawford and Jerry Lewis commission works while posters, postcards and other reproductions of the original works are purchased in enormous amounts by ordinary people who can't afford art but know what they like.

For the next few years, the Keanes settle into a lucrative routine in which she locks herself away to do the paintings while he milks them for all they are worth. Alas, like most artists, Walter craves respectability ("Where is my defining statement?") and pushes himself and Margaret into providing a big eye mural for the 1964 World's Fair, a commission that ends disastrously when Canaday rips it to shreds in print, provoking a pathetic public tirade from Walter. By now, Margaret has grown weary of lying to herself and her now-grown daughter (Madeline Arthur) and after a violent argument, she leaves Walter for good and heads to Hawaii with Jane. The Keane empire continues to hum along for a while but a few years later, Margaret give a radio interview in which she insists that she was the one who actually did all the painting and this eventually leads to one of the more bizarre courtroom trials imaginable, culminating with the aforementioned paint-off to determine who is to be credited (or blamed, depending on your perspective) for the paintings.

As I said, the story behind "Big Eyes" is uncommonly interesting but the film never quite manages to do anything of interest with it--while it would be a cheap shot to describe it as being a paint-by-numbers treatment, it is a strangely shallow depiction of a tale that fairly screams to be dealt with in more detail. This is a bit surprising because it was written by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, the screenwriting duo that has created a personal cottage industry out of writing biopics on fringe players in the entertainment world--their previous works have seen them tackle the personal and professional lives of Ed Wood ("Ed Wood"), Larry Flynt ("The People Vs. Larry Flynt"), Andy Kaufman ("Man on the Moon") and Bob Crane ("Auto Focus"). Those screenplays worked because they not only told oddball stories but because they were also able recast the quirky tales into more universal narratives--"Ed Wood" grappled with the subjective nature of art and whether it was talent or enthusiasm that made someone an artist while "The People Vs. Larry Flynt" made the notorious pornographer into an unlikely representative for the importance of free speech.

By comparison, their script for "Big Eyes" is all over the map tonally--it veers from broad comedy to drama without ever managing to make a smooth transition between the two emotional extremes--and it keeps flirting with interesting ideas that they never have any intention of dealing with in any detail. For example, it could have dealt with the elusive nature of art itself, especially in the heavily marketed manner forged by Walter Keane himself--can something still be considered a piece of art if it is merely a representation of a work that someone has created and does it need the approbation of those who have been appointed to judge the artistic merit of such things if it nevertheless makes some emotional connection with its audience? Such questions are frustratingly left unanswered and the script is similarly opaque in regards to Margaret Keane--there is no sense or understanding as to why she would take part in such a con, even when it means constantly lying to a daughter who has pretty much figured the situation out for herself long ago. Instead, their big innovation is to present the story as a sort of modern-day fairy tale, complete with a damsel in distress locked away in the attic by an ogre and a narrator (Danny Huston) recounting the tale--this is a cute idea, I suppose, but considering the ways in which the story could have gone, it just seems too shallow and insubstantial for its own good.

It may surprise some people to discover that "Big Eyes" was directed by Tim Burton because, with one or two brief exceptions, the film is largely devoid of the lavish visual flourishes that have tended to dominate (and occasionally overwhelm) his work--this is by far the most down-to-earth work that he has done since "Ed Wood," his previous collaboration with Alexander & Karaszewski and, for my money, still the single best film that he has ever done. That worked because one could sense an obvious connection between Burton and the story he was telling but that kind of personal link is not as much in evidence this time around. Other than the notion of feeling a certain kinship with another artist whose combination of the sentimental and the grotesque has inspired immense commercial success and an awkward relationship with the critical establishment, there is a certain emotional disconnect at its core that cannot be ignored. It is a shame because he does get good performances from Adams and Waltz and the scenes involving Jason Schwartzman and Terrence Stamp incredulously looking on as Keane mania sweeps the nation are pretty hilarious.

Ultimately, "Big Eyes" isn't so much a bad movie as it is a missed opportunity--it has a good story in the palm of its hand but doesn't quite know how to deliver on its promise. It has its moments and I certainly prefer its shagginess to the unrelentingly grim nature of fellow biopic "Unbroken." However, the closest thing it gets to satire or incisive commentary doesn't arrive until the end credits and I am almost certain that it was inadvertent. That said, if one is going to make a movie about an artist whose fabulous backstory captivates fans until it turns out that not only is said backstory not entirely true but that they appear to be incapable of performing the craft they are celebrated for in front of an audience, who better to sing the theme song than Lana del Ray?

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=26877&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/25/14 08:39:57
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USA
  25-Dec-2014 (PG-13)
  DVD: 14-Apr-2015

UK
  N/A

Australia
  25-Dec-2014
  DVD: 14-Apr-2015




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