Early on in Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, a San Francisco man offers a curious statement on the ocular creations of his love interest Margaret: “They’re way out of proportion.” The man, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), gets it or so he thinks. He furrows his brow, alters his toothy grin and attempts to understand. The woman, played by Amy Adams, delivers a smile and explains the personal nature of her art. There’s a telling awkwardness to the scene and the character’s intellectual musings offer a glimmer of hope that Big Eyes could truly be something special. But one actor stays in character while the other becomes way out of proportion.
Big Eyes tells the story of Walter and Margaret Keane; a couple who took the 60s art world by storm. Margaret Keane moved to San Francisco’s North Shore after separating from her husband, continued her practice of painting children with oversized eyes — using her daughter as the subject — and stood in the background as her rather flamboyant future husband peddled her works to local galleries. The role suits Adams well, as she’s able to exude a small amount of sex appeal while simultaneously portraying the innocence of a small town girl in Cali. She often leaves her mouth open like Marilyn Monroe and manages to find a place of fragility without overdoing it. In the most crucial of scenes, Adams delivers questionable dialogue (“Can’t we just stay here forever”) with ease. She’s believable.
On the other hand, there’s Waltz as the exuberant and mischievous Walter Keane. Let’s say this: the character has the charm of Leonardo DiCaprio and Christopher Walken from Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, but his devilish smile makes him more suitable for a Batman villain. Fact or fiction, Waltz’s magnetic performance stays on par with Adams until the last 30 minutes, as he then becomes cartoonish and laughable in all the wrong ways. The exaggerations fit the story, but Waltz strays greatly from the composed elegance of Amy Adams, especially when drunken Walter appears.
Visually, Big Eyes provides a warm viewing experience with vibrant colors and the mesmerizing paintings that became a cultural phenomenon. The spotty narration of gossip reporter Dick Nolan (Danny Huston) does little for the story, but Huston himself does a fine job along with the accomplished supporting cast of Jason Schwartzman, Krysten Ritter, and Terence Stamp. Even newcomer Madeleine Arthur delivers a poised performance as Jane, the daughter of Margaret.
Tim Burton’s film has plenty of flaws, but the visceral experience of Big Eyes allows for loads of fun and exciting frustration. It’s understandable why Margaret would shy away from the spotlight in early 60s America, but I was hoping for director Burton to explore her more as a human being. He makes a few references to her fascination with numerology but little background as to why she became the artist she was.
Big Eyes could have become an Oscar contender with more focus on Adams in the final act rather than a shift towards the public bravado of Waltz’s Walter Keane.