Monday, December 29, 2014

Big Eyes
My, What Big Lies You Have!  All The Better To Fraud You With . . .

Christoph Waltz as Walter Keane and Amy Adams as Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's "Big Eyes".
  The Weinstein Company

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Monday, December 29, 2014

Proportionality, agency and possession.  These are things "Big Eyes", Tim Burton's luridly-bright nightmare and Sirkian homage, is about.  This creepy, effective drama is based on the true story of Margaret Keane, the famous painter in San Francisco in the 1950s and 60s who painted hundreds of sad-looking girls with enlarged eyes dominating their faces.  Those souls are large, and Walter Keane's treacherous, for he took credit for painting them himself making millions in the process.

Mr. Burton is a big fan of Margaret Keane, and much of his work has the giant vigor, gleam, color and pall of her finest artistry.  "Big Eyes" has a key-lime freshness and sparkle that's so pristine, eye-popping and perfect that it's just too natural or good to be true, even politely unsightly.  The big bad wolf lurks around the corner, about to gatecrash the niceties of the San Francisco and style that Mr. Burton luxuriates in. Christoph Waltz is that wolf, and Bruno Delbonnel's camera shades the actor's Walter early on then dims the entire veneer.  Mr. Waltz plays wolf well: fangs exposed, ingratiating, charming and maniacal.

The elegance and gaiety of Mr. Burton's "Big Eyes", calibrated as a fairy-tale cum nightmare, never waivers even when Walter's scheme is exposed.  Margaret, played by Amy Adams, excellent here, awakens, claims agency by finding her voice, which it appears she was trying to resurrect through the sadness of the eyes of the girls she paints.  Long before her eventual resurrection, Margaret hesitates, becoming one of her own paintings.  And Walter, the ready possessor, swoops in for the kill.  Walter is an instant hit.  Margaret is boxed up like property - intellectual and Walter's property of 1967, as she paints the sad-eyed girls she will rapidly become.

Mr. Burton develops a menagerie of avarice, proportion, rapacity and madness that suffocates but doesn't quite overwhelm.  There's barely halting distance that Mr. Burton creates, and unlike the consuming power of some of his prior films, he leaves breathing room as Walter's connivances unfold.  "Big Eyes" is sly, and its knowing figures like Margaret's good friend DeAnn (Krysten Ritter), smell the stench of Walter's designs before Margaret does.  Margaret is the painting she crafts, flummoxed by 1950's "know your place, woman" sexist dogma, imprisoned by it and the fear of violence it internalizes.  Neutralized, Margaret eventually settles into the candy coated-lie, and Mr. Burton's atmosphere, wary but very comfortably.

Walter's crimes and charades were weaved until 1970, when Margaret found her own voice, fueled by her daughter.  "Big Eyes" is the story of a woman awakening from a male-imposed innocence, and an insight into art that compels its own artist to arise and speak for herself and the authorship of what she's created.  When we look at art, "Big Eyes" suggests, we look squarely at ourselves.  And that is an unassailable truth about art and the reactions that art provokes or elicits.  Margaret is trapped almost as much by her art as by Walter.  With his scheming and cruel appropriations, Walter has painted Margaret as money art, or, more pejoratively, as his "cash cow" -- his "little girl" with big gullible eyes. 

Ms. Adams is very effective, and percolation are her strongest moments playing Ms. Keane.  She's keen, aware, and precise.  Ms. Adams shows us the psycho-trauma and emotional betrayal on the surface without playing to or submerging her acting in the grandiose carnival Mr. Burton ensconces her in.  This perfect imbalance, and a more restrained Mr. Burton, is rendered seamlessly.  "Big Eyes" is by far the most enjoyable and alive Burton enterprise in some time.  Ms. Adams, an adept chameleon, displays technical qualities brilliantly, playing a highly skilled artist who has to sadly but understandably hide to survive during a repressive era for women, one in which the women's movement was just budding.

Critical exactness is foisted on the wicked, ever-wilting lies Walter tells, and the intensity of "Big Eyes" grows as its walls of truth close in on him.  A fastidious, renowned art critic (Terence Stamp) challenges Walter, as do others.  Soon, objects become larger and Walter smaller as his lies burgeon.  The scales balance out.

Mr. Burton has always been about proportionality in his work.  His imaginative art creations are often outsized and otherworldly, dominating his gothic, grotesque or grandiose landscapes.  The difference in "Big Eyes" is that proportional art figures become psychological ones for Margaret and Walter.  The landscape itself doesn't really change.  I expected a painting to vocalize in "Big Eyes".  It never does.  Yet Margaret's imagination comes even more alive, operating as her affirmation of self-ownership even as her agency is claimed and inhabited by Walter as the "creator" of her paintings.  It is here where "Big Eyes" peaks.  Walter is a pimp artiste.  Or an artist pimp.  Or prostituting fraud.  Or all the above.

In "Big Eyes" Mr. Burton excellently chips away at the artifice of art -- at how it is claimed by those who naively fail to appreciate its power or the power of its creators.  The director also plots a "groupie" arena of female adoration of males who aren't ever questioned by women.  It's a jarring, sycophantic vision.  Mr. Burton mocks the commercialization of art splendidly, using Walter as commerce's proxy.  Walter symbolically bastardizes art through his greed.  He's enabled by reporters.  Marital entitlements, which California firmly recognized and afforded men marital rape rights over women right up into the 1970s, supplied Walter the leverage to abuse Margaret on a psychological (and maybe physical) level.

The art in "Big Eyes", whether celebrated or damned, liberates the souls of its antagonists and protagonists.  This happens when Margaret engages her art as she inhabits the warped Walter's misshapen, inaccurate world.  Margaret figuratively and retreats into her art as an attempted safe haven.  She could be said to be "relegated" to art, yet I saw Margaret's retreat as an attempt to regroup, empower and reclaim her larger voice as a person via what she does best.  Margaret's imagination is more powerful than Walter's deception.  So are Margaret's affirmations and identity.  "This art is a part of me," she says.  Mr. Burton blends them well.

What "Big Eyes" shows us is how the male psyche and the crafted, privileged world that bolsters it perpetuates and creates a climate for a world, no matter how complicit or opposing.  This world sides with Walter and his possessiveness and believes, or acquiesces, to his lies.  And beyond that the world bends to his will.  Though some in "Big Eyes" have doubts, none of them question.  Only Margaret's daughter, she of the future generation, speaks up to breaks the spell.

Also with: Danny Huston, Jon Polito, Jason Schwartzman, Madeleine Arthur, Delaney Raye.

"Big Eyes" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for thematic elements and brief strong language.  The film's running time is one hour and 46 minutes.

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