Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
Director Tim Burton has created a hermetic world unique to himself. You will never find his suburbs in Wayne, New Jersey; Coeur d'Alene, Idaho; Baltimore, Maryland or anywhere else on earth. As seen in films like "Edward Scissorhands," "Ed Wood" and the animated "Frankenweenie," Burton's version of the American Dream and its symbols, notably the split level house, is idiosyncratic and primed for lunacy.
In "Big Eyes" one will find those same notes from the 50s and 60s. Indeed, they are his hallmarks.
The film details the true story of Margaret Keane, born as Margaret Doris Hawkins, known for her portraits done in the early 1960s of cherubic children with huge dark and pooling eyes that are as large as Siamese cats. The distinctive eyes are like rivers or dark marbles formed from the blood of burnt sienna. Among critics her paintings were labeled as cheap, pandering and kitschy in the worst way. Nevertheless she achieved iconic fame.
But nothing is easy.
Margaret (Amy Adams) begins, stifled by a controlling husband that we never see but nonetheless can sense, given the conformist environment. The Burtonesque houses hover in the background like ominous mushrooms of pale gray and ivory bone.
When she motors away with her daughter Jane (Delaney Raye) in tow, the screen's palette becomes a terrain of brilliant yellows, sky blues and emerald greens. Here is the wife starting anew and heading for San Francisco, determined to paint.
During an outdoor art show, she meets the fast talking gadabout Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz). Margaret is swept by his charm and seeming worldliness even though his paintings lack character.
Faced with a bitter custody battle, she agrees to hastily marry Walter.
She paints incessantly.
Walter goes to gallery after gallery with his own work but gets nastily rejected. On a whim, he brings Margaret's "waifs" and gets art space in a nightclub. Through Walter's ingratiating but frenzied salesmanship, her paintings get noticed.
One day during a showing, Walter lets it slip, that he in fact, is the painter. Margaret is aghast, but because the work is making money, she relents.
The ruse of her husband Walter Keane as the artist is a dilemma that almost destroys Margaret.
Waltz is terrific as the hyper, smarmy and ultimately psychotic Walter. Under Burton's direction, what at first was once slick with affection is transformed into a petty, annoying and angry caw of a man, making a genuine American Gothic. Adams too, does excellently as the interior and somewhat passive creator with a surreptitious feline intelligence. With her role as the scofflaw creator, Amy Adams subverts the stereotype of the 1960s housewife.
"Big Eyes" is Tim Burton's 1950s period film, showing a young woman of vision (however schmaltzy) striking against status quo and convention. The recognizable Burton elements are here: there is a good scene in a grocery store showing all customers having "Keane Eyes" as Margaret picks up a Campbell's soup can (in a tribute to Andy Warhol). And its scares you want Walter Keane is almost as pathological as Jack Torrance in "The Shining."
Like John Waters, all of Burton's work is about odd people striking out to make their own eccentric path under the pastel weight of the 50s. Here we have a genuine Margaret Scissorhands of a sort battling against a jealous alcoholic worthy of Poe. As Walter Keane, Christoph Waltz makes an frightening yet comical antihero and indeed, one to watch.
Although we might have a nightmare before paradise once again, set against the backdrop of a vibrantly hued Honolulu, we also have the introverted but buoyant Margaret to show us the glee within the gloom.
Alas, in true Burton fashion, quirk always wins out : Walter Keene died in 2000, consumed by anger, bankrupt and alone, while Margaret still lives on at age 86, to paint another day.
Write Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org