Big Eyes (USA: 2014): A major fraud it was. A major story, it wasn’t.

The setting for much of Tim Burton’s Big Eyes is late 1950’s early 1960s San Francisco. Bruno Delbonnel and supporting crew have done an excellent job capturing the city. I don’t think that period has been captured on film so splendidly since Vertigo. It is bright, incredibly hip, vibrant and cool at the same time and there are constant reminders that on a sunny day, there is probably no more gorgeous city on earth for a view of the world. I often found myself wondering where they found or created such pristine examples of 1950s storefronts and neighborhoods. I know a little of how the magic works, but I was impressed by the exterior vistas and the mid-century interiors of the movie. If Margaret and Walter Keane (Amy Adams and Christoph Walz) weren’t such a tense couple going through marital troubles, I probably would have wanted to move right in with them. Unfortunately, I seldom am willing to recommend a film based on technical production quality alone. I found the picture as a whole to be just so-so. There just isn’t enough of a story here to be interesting.

The story of the Keanes should be exciting, since they were at the heart what the press wants to call one of the biggest cases of art fraud in the 20th century. If you are not familiar with the story, Walter Keane, who could barely paint, made a fortune selling his wife’s art as his own. When she finally sued him for defamation, he was unable to produce a painting of any sort. At the time, her paintings and reproductions were very popular. Her “Big Eyed Waifs” were part of a mid-century craze for portraits of children. There were a number of artists and designers working in that arena, many of them women. Keane’s were among the most popular (still are). “Big-Eyed” art has never received much in the way of legitimate standing in the world of fine art, and although it is collectible, I doubt that there will be a Keane retrospective at MoMA or the Tate any time soon.

One of the problems the film suffers from is that the issues it covers have largely been settled, and were actually settled at the time. Just because we can throw the word “fraud” out there to describe a story, doesn’t mean that there is a crime worth reporting. It is very well established in the world of contemporary painting who gets creative credit for a piece. And it is also well settled that mid-century kitsch can be a fun aesthetic to explore, but it isn’t an example of the finest art that the period produced. There just isn’t a groundswell of sentiment to reexamine these issues.

Without these wider issues, I’m not certain why we need to care. Margaret Keane won her case, so there isn’t a sense that justice has been denied. There don’t seem to be any interesting questions about how Walter Keane was able to fool the public – his wife never said anything and no one else bothered to look very closely into the matter. While it seems like ten years is a long time to keep silent, in the scheme of things, it isn’t. That a conversion to the faith of the Jehovah’s Witnesses helped Margaret confront Walter could have been an interesting topic to explore, but as a secular Hollywood film, Burton knows not to explore that conversion in any depth.

The film seems designed more to prove that although she went along with the fraud, Margaret Keane was innocent of fraud due to the inherent sexism of the times and Walter’s uncanny ability to be both charming and frightening. Walz is wonderful portraying Walter Keane as a delusional but manipulative husband. There is a sense of foreboding that Walter is eventually going to explode if Margaret disobeys him. Even though she clearly should have the upper hand as the talent behind the empire, Margaret simply doesn’t play her hand. If there is any suspense in the film, it comes from us waiting for Margaret to finally find the moment to leave him. Both Adams and Walz are compelling even if we are largely getting Margaret’s perspective, Walter’s character is full enough that I don’t think Burton is being unfair to him.

If it would be cliche to bring in questions like “is it art” into a film about a largely forgotten artist, it is just as much cliche to have a movie where the root source of the problems of a female lead is mid-century sexism. I think Burton wants sexism to be an explanation that exonerates the heroine, but strangely he frames the movie as a story told by Dick Nolan (Danny Huston), a social gossip reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle. Why is a story about the endemic sexism of the 1950s being told by a man? I have no idea. I found the framing to be intrusive. Dick is a character in the story as well. He was the first person Walter convinces that he was a painter of big-eyed waifs. But beyond that role, I didn’t find Dick as a narrator offered any more insights into what happened in the Keane’s marriage than any other outsider would have. When his narration intrudes into the film, the character has nothing to add that we have not already seen or will see shortly. Is it supposed to add an aura of truthfulness to the Margaret’s story to have it backed up by the authority of a cynical male reporter? I’m not certain framing devices are supposed to work to undermine their films that way.

** of Five

IMDB: Big Eyes

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