Secret Painter: Burton paints his lightest, second most sensitive work with "Big Eyes"

Big Eyes (2014)
106 min., rated PG-13.

Though it is a minority opinion, 2012's "Dark Shadows" might have been a bit of a mess, but it was a lovingly gothic and entertainingly imaginative live-action return to form for macabre filmmaker Tim Burton and his summation of work since 2007's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street." Straying a bit from the dark and strange with "Big Eyes," the stranger-than-fiction story of '50s-'60s painter Margaret Keane would be seem to be poles apart from Burton's idiosyncratic sensibility. Then again, such an unusual, fascinating true story makes for his most gentle and sensitively human work alongside 2003's "Big Fish" and 1990's "Edward Scissorhands." At first glance, "Big Eyes" doesn't feel like a recognizable Burton picture with a welcome lighter touch, but his warmth and humor, fondness for kitsch, and surreal visual eye are certainly present. In the long list of biopics this holiday season, this one is the most delightfully offbeat, something of a small winner that shouldn't go overlooked.

Northern California, 1953. Fleeing the suburbs and her abusive first husband, naïve housewife Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) packs up her life in a suitcase, with round-eyed young daughter Jane (Delaney Raye) in tow, and uproots them to North Beach in San Francisco. While she has a portfolio of paintings—all of them of big, saucer-eyed children—Margaret doesn't have much work experience to provide for her and Jane's new life. One day at an art fair in a park, she meets Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a realtor-cum-painter of Italian street scenes. He's so charming and Margaret so impressionable that, in order for Margaret to keep her daughter, Walter asks the single mom to marry him. She's reluctant at first, but sees Walter as a good provider. Before Margaret knows it, her new husband starts promoting and then selling her big-eyed paintings, but he takes credit for being the creator of the "little hobo kids," signing them all in the bottom right-hand corner as "Keane." He tries reassuring her, "I'm Keane, you're Keane. From now on, we're one and the same," but it's her word against his, and for ten years, Walter would force his undermined wife to churn out her creations in a closed-off art studio of their fancy home.

Written by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski (who both know their way around biopics, including 1994's "Ed Wood," 1996's "The People vs. Larry Flynt" and 1999's "Man on the Moon"), "Big Eyes" paints a personal, achingly sad eye into the sexism and fraudulent behavior in a 1950s marriage. Narrated by Examiner reporter Dick Nolan (Danny Huston), the screenplay takes its time through the first two halves, tracking Walter's charade of taking credit for Margaret's paintings and being his own artist of manipulation, and then rushes through the last. One cannot help but wish the story was given a more even-handed treatment and fleshed out Margaret's feelings even more deeply. She does tell Walter that the "big eye" paintings are personal, like all art. Margaret puts her heart into all of them and she centers on the big peepers, as they are the way to the soul, a notion she realized when going deaf for a short period of time in her life. The film is obviously on Margaret's side, even when critics revile "Walter's" creations as "creepy, maudlin, amateurish," and Burton and his screenwriters raise questions about art and commerce. Would patrons look at the paintings differently with a woman being the artist ("lady art")? If art makes money, does that automatically make it "good"?

While a grinning Christoph Waltz is the show, a blonde-wigged Amy Adams is the heart. In a nimbly reactive and impassioned performance that could have been too passive, Adams is a touching triumph of perfection. She never hits a false note, creating a submissive but effortlessly empathetic and pure character in Margaret to whom our heart goes out. Unlike husband Walter, she has a heart and soul and later gains a backbone (which she once had to leave her first husband). As the schmoozing, insincere Walter Keane, Waltz is an ingratiating showboat. He's certainly fun to watch, despite dialing it up rather than down or somewhere in the middle, and probably brought even more paint buckets of larger-than-life color than what was already written for him on the page. Jason Schwartzman and Terrence Stamp have some fun, respectively, as a hoity-toity art gallerist and biting art critic, while Krysten Ritter, as Margaret's only friend DeeAnn, is largely underutilized, dropping out as quickly as she drops in.

Narratively, "Big Eyes" hasn't the depth to always allow the story to breathe. It probably wouldn't have been such a bad idea to develop the relationship between Margaret and Jane to feel the impact of a mother lying to a daughter (later played by Madeleine Arthur). However, taking in the bigger picture, we care about Margaret and we can't wait to see her voice be liberated in a courtroom, which would be so absurd if it weren't so true and satisfying. Not to be unexpected, the film looks swell, being aided by Bruno Delbonnel's vibrant cinematography and Rick Heinrichs' era-specific production design, with the introductory scenes' pastel-colored suburbia recalling "Edward Scissorhands." Burton does eventually get in touch with his trademark weirdness in a nightmarish sequence, set in a grocery store, where Margaret starts seeing everyone as one of her big-eyed portraits. Just sharing Margaret Keane's little-known story makes for a good yarn that is just a stroke away from sounding like pure fiction, and it takes a filmmaker who has respect and an affection for the people on screen and knows how to inject a certain whimsical flair to do it justice. It's nice to see Tim Burton fully connected here.