Movie review: 'Big Eyes'

Tim Burton film recalls the sturm, drang and kitsch of painter Margaret Keane

Tim Burton has always loved his kitsch, from Pee-wee Herman to Ed Wood to "Mars Attacks!" trading cards. Turns out Burton's loves also include Margaret Keane, painter of doe-eyed waifs, whose work the director has collected for years. Now, in an ultimate act of fandom, Burton has turned Keane's career and relationship travails into the cockeyed dramedy, "Big Eyes."

Like Burton's "Ed Wood" and Miloš Forman's "The People vs. Larry Flynt" and "Man on the Moon," "Big Eyes" comes with a screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, masters of fact-based kookiness. Opening in 1958 Northern California (a boost in fun factor for local viewers), Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography and Rick Heinrichs' production design wistfully evokes the VistaVision and Technicolor of the era. Newly arrived San Franciscan Margaret Ulbrich, a runaway single mother, quickly runs afoul of Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a man whose unctuous repertoire of false emotion spans a wolfish grin and crocodile tears ("All I ever wanted was to support myself as an artist ... I'm just a Sunday painter").

Walter moves quickly to woo and wed Margaret, but their marriage sours rapidly, in no small part due to a husband's jealousy over his wife's talent and incipient success. Walter gets his paintings -- every one a Parisian street scene -- on the walls of the famed Hungry i nightclub, but it's Margaret work that draws attention, prompting Walter to swoop in and claim credit for work he initially dismissed as unsellable "lady art." The conflict therein defines the downward course of the Keanes' marriage, culminating in a trial straight out of a Marx Brothers movie.

With deadpan deftness, Adams walks a line in portraying Margaret as a pop artist and flowering feminist hero, but possessed of a double-edged naivete: Without it, she would never have achieved such success, yet with it, she became prone to Walter and, later, the Jehovah's Witnesses (Adams also wears Colleen Atwood's perky period costumes well). Waltz throws caution to the wind to make Walter an enjoyable if cartoony riff on the banality of evil, while Danny Huston brings in a touch of "Sweet Smell of Success" as ink-stained wretch Dick Nolan ("I make things up for a living. I'm a reporter.").

Burton pokes fun at Keane's art, but he kids because he loves, and "Big Eyes" productively asks the question of whether the paintings are art or kitsch (or both). The specter of Andy Warhol hovers over the story: a Warhol epigram opens the film, and Walter snipes, "That fruit fly stole my act," referring to the idea of producing art for maximum consumer consumption. And though Burton has always followed the (off)beat of a different drummer, there's a twinkle in "Big Eyes"' line, "What's wrong with the lowest common denominator? That's what this country was built on!"

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language. One hour, 45 minutes.

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