Big Eyes

Wandering lost
Tim Burton
Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Krystin Ritter, Danny Huston
The Setup: 
True story about an artist who let her husband take credit for her work.

This is a movie about Margaret Keane, whose paintings were all over everywhere during the sixties, numerous very similar paintings of sad little girls with huge eyes. Being born in ’68, I definitely remember seeing them around during my childhood, as well as being aware of their influence (on the numerous “love is…” cartoons and figurines and all manner of other kitsch like that). They were tremendously popular but could not gain any respect from the art world, and now can be looked back on as a kind of signifier of what people were thinking then. I was interested in this film almost entirely on the strength of Burton’s Ed Wood, where he made a great film about another artist who pumped out nothing but what was considered trash, and found the merit of the sincerity and enthusiasm and effort that went into them. Even though this film got tepid reviews, I still gave it a chance on the hopes Burton would bring his affection for kitsch artists to it, but… it turns out the reviews were not nearly as bad as it deserved, for this film is a mess in pretty much every way (except cinematography).

We open with Amy Adams as Margaret packing up quickly while her husband is out, and escaping her marriage with her young daughter. She ends up in San Francisco, where she meets a friend played by Krysten Ritter. Before we know it, she has a job and a small apartment, and meets Christoph Waltz as Walter Keane. He is a painter of Parisian street scenes and claims to have studied in France. He is very vivacious and full of huge smiles, presumably charming although it’s hard to think that most of us wouldn’t see some big red flags with his over-the-top presentation. We’ll also never know if the real Keane spoke with an Austrian accent, as Walter does here. Anyway, when Margaret’s ex-husband sues for custody of her daughter, Walter proposes marriage, and Margaret accepts it as the easiest way out. Soon they are married, and now Margaret is signing her paintings “Keane,” in the same hand her husband signs his.

Having trouble getting into serious galleries, Walter arranges to show their paintings in a nightclub. He soon finds that no one is interested in his works, but everyone is captivated by his wife’s paintings of children. The couple start making money on them, but Margaret finds that Walter is claiming credit for them. She tells him to stop, but when a millionaire descendent of the Olivetti [typewriters] family asks them both who is the artist, Margaret hangs silent until Walter says that he is. What is absolutely clear is that Walter is a much better marketer than Margaret could ever be, and he is soon courting the press in articles and by presenting the paintings as gifts to visiting stars and dignitaries. Margaret gets tucked away into the couple’s attic, pumping out paintings, while Walter claims credit as the artist and eventually opens a gallery. When people start taking the posters for the gallery instead of buying the expensive paintings, he starts creating posters and postcards, eventually selling them in supermarkets and other such places. The money continues rolling in, and Margaret keeps their secret, even from her daughter (which, for the entirety of the movie, is almost impossible to believe, as her daughter saw her painting before she left her first husband).

It is always open between them that Walter is lying, and Margaret grows increasingly bitter, although she never does anything about it. At one point, she threatens to expose the authorship of the paintings, and Walter casually threatens to have her killed. At this point you think “Okay, NOW that will be the final straw” (I’ve always thought that threats of murder are a clear signal that a marriage has soured), but no. Margaret’s total passivity becomes a serious issue for the movie, because it seems like its trying to develop a familiar narrative of an oppressed woman who won’t take it any more, and finally stand up for herself, but she just keeps on taking it and never standing up for herself. By the way, please note the number of times Margaret is in a dark studio with bright sunlight just on her, or lightening her hair up from behind, as though to say that she is this brilliant light being kept in darkness.

Eventually they move into a grand home south of San Francisco. Krystin Ritter visits again, and is sent packing by Walter, who orders Margaret never to see her again. Margaret then discovers that Walter didn’t even paint the Parisian street scenes he’d been claiming to all along, he buys then from a French artist and just signs his name over the artist’s signature. So Walter does not, and cannot, paint at all. The movie could have veered into how desperately he wants to be an artist, but it chooses not to. He needs Margaret to supply “his” early sketches for a coffee table book being published on “his” art, and she complies. Then Margaret’s daughter discovers that her mother is the actual artist, and we have a scene in which Walter is drunk and tossing lit matches through a keyhole, into the studio, which is full of flammable chemicals. This is finally enough for Margaret—

To run away again! She just grabs her daughter and they run off to Hawaii, where they settle into a gorgeous home surrounded by flowers, which might cause you to shout—internally, of course—“Oh, and HOW is she affording that?” After a while, Walter finds her, and will grant her a divorce, IF she paints 200 more paintings for him to sell as his own. She does it (although she signs her initials, which he will just paint over). Then the Jehovah’s Witnesses visit, and Margaret becomes a convert, and it is through her association with the Jehovah’s Witnesses that she finally—suddenly, arbitrarily—decides to sue Walter. It’s amusing to watch how seriously the movie tries to downplay the important place of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in this story.

Well, the movie has gone on too long to really do justice to a court case, but they try. Walter ends up representing himself, and the whole court case could have been incredibly wacky and outrageous—apparently in real life Walter literally had to be gagged to stop talking—only we just have time for a few highlights, which, so outrageous in such a short time, have no impact. It is finally decided that the only way to prove the case is have the two artists paint in the courtroom. Margaret tosses off a typical painting, while Walter “waits for the muse to come” and finally claims injury. Margaret wins and—credits! Thanks so much—BYE! It’s as if the filmmakers themselves are telling you this is something best forgotten. A closing picture of Amy Adams alongside the real Margaret Keane comes off as a desperate ploy for legitimacy.

This is one of those movies that is amusing enough to watch while it’s on. Toward the end, the questions start to seep in, and once it’s over, it slowly dawns on you that you just saw an utter piece of shit—and the reasons why start piling up. And this movie made me dislike it enough that I want to catalogue each and every one!

For one, they’re trying to shoehorn this into a you-go-girl, wronged-woman-gets-justice narrative, but the story just doesn’t support it. Margaret is so passive and such a doormat that it’s really hard to get behind her in any way, and she becomes very frustrating. It’s one thing that she falls into the scheme in the first place, but once the casual death threats come, you start wondering what’s wrong with HER for staying. Then when she supplies the sketches to provide evidence of Walter’s career, you’re like “Really?” Then she just runs away from her husband, AGAIN, not fighting for anything she had or earned (although apparently she didn’t need to? Because she’s set up in swank style in uber-expensive Hawaii). Then she supplied 200 paintings for him, even AFTER she’s gotten away from him?

Now, before you get on me about not understanding how a woman could feel unsafe and end up psychologically trapped by a disturbed man, what I’m saying is that the MOVIE doesn’t develop Margaret’s character enough to make us understand her passivity. I would be fascinated for the movie to really delve into why Margaret is this passive, and why she let this happen to her, why she takes it and takes it and takes it and NEVER fights back. Something in her childhood? Something with her parents? Something in her psychology? I’d love to know, and with that insight we could get a much richer look into this character, and understand why she stays. Thing is, not only doesn’t the movie have time for depth of any kind, from anyone, that kind of depth doesn’t fit with the wronged-woman-redeemed narrative, so it is left out, leaving the movie just a big heap of busy events.

Speaking of depth, how about finding out more about Walter? How did he end up this way? Why does he speak with a Viennese accent? Why is he so desperate to be an artist? How did he come to be so outrageously confident, and such a pathological liar? Why did he pick up Margaret in the first place? We’ll never know. The movie could have also delved into his vision of being an artist, which is all about studying in Paris and waiting for the muse, but nothing about actual painting. From what we can tell, Walter was desperate to be an artist, without ever once ATTEMPTING to be. He wanted the trappings of being an artist, everything except making art. That’s kind of an interesting story, right? Well, you won’t find it here.

The real sign of absolute shoddiness is the sheer amount of characters who appear and vanish again, having made no impact on the story. Krystin Ritter appears maybe five times, for maybe a minute or two each, and has zero bearing on the story. She is supposed to be Margaret’s good friend, but we see no evidence of their relationship (in the reality of what appears on screen, they appear quite distant). Jason Schwartzman appears as a rival gallery owner, has maybe a cumulative five minutes of screen time, and is gone, having had zero impact on the story. Danny Huston and Terence Stamp play extremely minor and underdeveloped roles. Margaret’s daughter is supposed to be the source of her resilience and strength, yet their relationship is completely undeveloped. The real kicker is when we meet, midway through, the daughter we didn’t know Walter had, and after 30 seconds she’s gone, never to be seen again.

Well, what about the themes of the film? Again, undeveloped mush. The movie begins with a quote from Warhol, but never develops material about how Keane and the mass production of art were seen in the context of Warhol, who was going on right at the same time. It also only includes the barest mention of what was happening in the serious art world at the time. One would think that the movie would develop—as Ed Wood did—a statement about unvalued art, art that is considered crap, and the passion for creativity that can go into it, and how this stands against the successful art of the day. It floats light chunks about how Margaret’s art is personal, whereas Walter is all commerce, which makes it a natural to compare to Warhol and the art scene of the day and make some kind of statement about what it all means, but no. Nothing coalesces into anything, except your wasted time.

The film has an opportunity to rescue itself in the final paint-off, a way to bring all these issues to the fore in visual terms, as we see the two blank canvases before the artist and the non-artist, but it fizzles out, and then the movie ends as apologetically as possible. And one must think that for all the visual fireworks Burton is (said to) bring to his films, he really doesn’t know how to use his visuals to tell a story. I recommend he take the next month off and have a De Palma marathon.

This is one of those movies where the only real question is what went wrong, and where. The script is a shambles—and it is by the same duo who wrote Ed Wood—but… maybe it was butchered? (Or maybe it was just awful in the first place.) Maybe Harvey Weinstein got control of the whole thing and he’s once again trying to shape it into a banal but salable narrative? Or maybe it’s a combination of factors? We’ll never know for sure, but this is the second movie after the execrable Monuments Men to make a total and utter piece of garbage out of a great story, starring a great cast.

Should you watch it: 

I wouldn’t bother, but on cable or Netflix if you must.