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Review: Big Eyes

January 19, 2015

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Big Eyes Poster

With memorable performances from Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams, who won a Golden Globe for her role, Big Eyes is Tim Burton’s best live action film in years, a richly designed and appropriately offbeat period piece with themes that still feel just as important.

The film recounts the fascinating true story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), a shy artist in the 1950s who bared her soul through portraits of children with exaggeratedly large eyes, and her husband Walter (Christoph Waltz), who claimed the paintings as his own.

A rich socialite and fellow artist, Walter turned her paintings into a kitschy cultural phenomenon in the 1960s, keeping her largely out of the public eye, as he swayed the media with his scheme and sold countless prints.  This eventually resulted in a court case, with Margaret determined to reclaim the rightful credit for her work.

Amy Adams is excellent here, respectfully portraying this woman who was taken advantage of and stuck in a toxic relationship, before gaining the courage and support she needed to stand up for herself.  The actress beautifully portrays this character arc, with her seeming naiveté of the earlier scenes giving way to admirable determination in the last act.  Christoph Waltz is her match, lighting up the screen with his charismatic portrayal of this slimy charmer who becomes increasingly oppressive and quietly terrifying, displaying his full range during the brilliant courtroom scenes at the end.

The supporting cast is also excellent.  Jason Schwartzman makes the most of his scenes as a hilariously pretentious gallery owner, and Terrence Stamp also has some memorable moments as a tough and unforgiving art critic whose arguments add another fascinating layer of conversation to Big Eyes.  The set design and costumes are impressive throughout, with the memorable look of the production being both respectful of the era and representative of Tim Burton’s unique vision.

The director’s distinctive style is on display right from the beginning, with an establishing shot of the identical cookie cutter houses lining a suburban street, that immediately recalls similar images from Edward Scissorhands and the animated Frankenweenie.  After the enjoyable but not overly special blockbusters Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows, it’s refreshing to see Tim Burton return with something small that also feels personal, most closely recalling his brilliant 1994 biopic Ed Wood, with which Big Eyes shares the same writers.

The screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski offers a satirical view of 1950s America, brilliantly exploring the ludicrously outdated idea that people wouldn’t want to buy the work of a female artist, or “lady art” as Walter crudely calls it.  At a time when the gender inequality of Hollywood is becoming increasingly apparent, this is a conversation that still feels just as relevant and one that we need to be having, with the film openly exploring issues of sexism and abuses of power in relationships.

There is a lot of thought provoking stuff here, wrapped up in an attractive and accessible package that deserves a wider audience.  With great performances and a sharp screenplay, Big Eyes is a supremely entertaining and incredibly well written film, that opens fascinating conversations about gender politics and what constitutes art.

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