I liked BIG EYES but not as much as Fiona or as much as I expected to. It’s definitely an improvement on the awful ALICE IN WONDERLAND de-imagining, which caused me to skip out on DARK SHADOWS altogether. And it fits squarely into the oeuvre of screenwriters Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, maybe the only writing team in America whose authorship trumps whoever’s directing. I mean, it’s recognizably a Burton movie, even without Helena Bonham-Carter, but it has more in common with MAN ON THE MOON or even AUTO-FOCUS (which they produced but didn’t write) than it does with SWEENEY TODD or the de-imagining of PLANET OF THE APES.
Adapting true stories of crazy people to the screen presents all kinds of problems — generally, it seems to help if the people are likable and have some kind of self-insight — Edward D. Wood Jnr. as written by this team, maybe have been delusional about his own talent, but he’s a clear-eyed American optimist in every other way (the real Wood, I would guess from reading and viewing, was more arrogant, sneaky and tortured than the fictional version). I guess it’s the reverse of fiction, where you try to figure out what yhe character would do — here, you know what they did but you have to discover or invent the WHY, then express it. The Keanes, at the centre of BIG EYES, present interesting difficulties.
Walter, played with ever-more-manic grin (and some hysterical chimp-like physical touches) by Christoph Waltz, lives in such a cloud of deceit that it’s hard to know how much self-insight he’s capable of. At times, he seems to know in his heart of hearts that he’s a fraud, but being an artist is so central to his conceit of himself that he can only survive without this fantasy for seconds at a time, before diving gratefully back into his goldfish bowl of delusion. Waltz plays this to the hilt, never much bothering to suggest the plausibility which would make someone fall for Walter’s stories or his charm.
This choice, perfectly defensible in itself, puts more pressure on Amy Adams, who plays a woman who, despite walking out on one (unseen) husband at the film’s opening, allows herself to be dominated and steered for most of the movie. People in co-dependant relationships are tricky to dramatise, because in fiction as in life it’s easy to get frustrated with them for making bad choices, for being gullible, for being doormats. The movie does its best to stress Margaret Keane’s strengths, but that makes the story’s plausibility even shakier than history left it (knowing something is true doesn’t stop it being hard to believe at times). And since Margaret is still alive, and cooperated with the filmmakers, and shouldn’t be trashed after all she’s been through, there’s some particularly delicate footwork when she trades the domination of her crazy husband for the domination of the Jehovah’s Witness movement (after a flirtation with numerology).
Adams is a talented, versatile player, but holding the film together with such a passive character seemed a strain for her, or for the film. We go with her when she’s suckered in by Walter/Waltz, since the script cunningly conceals much of the truth about his background, so we’re quite prepared to accept him as a struggling minor landscape artist, like Hitler. Showing how he just sort of falls into claiming credit for her paintings doesn’t just soften his character a little, it makes it easier for us to accept her forgiving him and going along with it.
But actors like to feel positive about the people they’re playing — admirable qualities can be found even in an utter villain — and apparently being nice isn’t enough to make Margaret Keane worthy of Adams — she tries to make her smart, and strong, which I think Keane may be now with maturity and hindsight, but probably wasn’t at the time of these events. (Having her kick over a bottle of white spirits as her hubbie, gone full Jack Torrance, is shoving lit matches through the letterbox, doesn’t help convince us of her resourcefulness.)
My other problem is with the script, which has come in for near-universal praise, but which I felt was a bit talky, ploddy and expository. True, there’s nothing as bald and artless as the “As you know, I’m your father” type dialogue in HITCHCOCK and MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, but a whole lot of scenes not involving our main characters, and a whole lot of characters without any meat on their bones, have to be invented to move the events along and explain them. And we have scenes that are just characters watching TV so we can meet Terence Stamp and see Perry Mason “for dramatic purposes” as Foreign Man puts it during the opening titles of MAN ON THE MOON. This eagerness to explain everything maybe helps the average viewer cope with the unexplainable actions of the protagonists, which is what is interesting about them, but to me they felt mechanical, like the unnecessary VO and the one-note cartoonery of Jon Polito and Jason Schwartzman (Krysten Ritter pulls this off best). Although speaking personally, I was cheered to see a movie in which an art critic gets to be bad-ass. Burton obviously likes Margaret Keane’s terrible paintings the same way he likes Ed Wood’s terrible films (I prefer Wood to Keane, myself), but it was important to have SOMEONE in the film who can make the necessary point that just because Keane’s paintings are sincere, doesn’t make them any good.
Real artists NEVER look at what they’re doing.
Side-note — I have a pet hate in movies, which is the unconvincing painter/artist. It’s great in NEW YORK STORIES when we see Nick Nolte getting slathered in coloured goop the way real painters do, but he has it easy, playing an abstract impressionist. Most actors seem terrified to make a mark on paper or canvas, and we see them scratching away at a line in tiny increments, when any competent draughtsman would have swept the pencil across the paper in a single unbroken arc. In RENOIR we see huge closeups of Michel Bouquet’s hand, elaborately made-up with a callous the size a second thumb, but what he’s actually doing with his pencil and brush is farcical. The shot doesn’t require him to do anything we can assess as good or bad, he just needs to MAKE A DISCERNIBLE MARK, and he’s evidently scared stiff of doing so. (What happens to most kids that makes them stop drawing as they learn to read? And become humiliated by the very notion of sketching?)
As Margaret Keane, Adams has a key scene which is all about her executing a painting under the watchful eyes of an audience, so it’s a shame this couldn’t have been handled more convincingly. (James Cameron hand-doubling for Leo in TITANIC works fine, except he draws like a 90s storyboard artist, all Jack Kirby cheekbones, and not like anybody ever drew in the period the movie’s set in — different eras have different bad habits.) Still, to some extent her incompetence can be explained as in keeping with the character’s lack of skill, and she’s slightly more convincing with a brush than a pencil. Though the whole thing makes me wonder if Burton ever really drew those cartoons of his. Maybe it was Lisa Marie?
I see the Keanes as a classic folie a deux. He couldn’t have perpetrated his fraud without her incredible compliance, and nor could his business acumen, such as it was, have found an outlet with the Unique Selling Point of her bulbous-eyed waifs. His own work, if it ever was his, had nothing to distinguish it. But since her paintings are not GOOD, we have to allow him his share of the credit for popularizing them.
As with Ed Wood, the amount of narrative and talk does slightly limit Burton’s ability to be the visual stylist he’s known as, but at least it gets him away from stripes and curls and the film’s settings are gorgeous: the painterly depiction of period San Francisco is a constant delight (proving, as I trust the Wachowskis would concede, that San Francisco makes a better San Francisco onscreen than Glasgow does). The night scenes at the Keane’s lavish modern home are sumptuously coloured, evoking both three-strip Technicolor and Mario Bava, but landing in their own sweet, supersaturated spot. But only in the hallucinatory visit to a supermarket where Margaret’s subjects come to life and haunt her, does the film really come alive as pure cinema — a proper sequence! I wanted that bit to last three times as long.