Some time ago, in fact in my review of “Dark Shadows” for the website CityVida (which I hope to repost in this blog soon), I suggested that the time had come for Tim Burton and Johnny Depp to go their separate ways for awhile as their collaborations were beginning to run on empty. I suggested that such a separation could help recharge their creative batteries. Based on their latest individual projects, it seems to me that Burton may have benefited more than Depp from the split. For while in the past two years Depp has appeared in two critically panned films —“The Lone Ranger” and “Transcendence”— Burton has delivered two very personal, very entertaining and very touching films: the animated “Frankenweenie” (based on an early animated short) and “Big Eyes.”
Some critics rightfully consider “Big Eyes” to be a companion piece to “Ed Wood,” Burton’s and Depp’s second collaboration. Both films celebrate —in Burton’s point of view— two underrated and eccentric artists whose work catered to the lowest common denominator because, as one character puts it in “Big Eyes,” “what is wrong with the lowest common denominator? That’s what this country was built on.” Ed Wood and “Big Eyes” protagonist Margaret Keane genuinely believe in the power of creation. They embrace it. Both are outsiders in their respective fields: Ed as a purveyor of low-budget genre fare in the 1950s (his “Plan 9 from Outer Space” was once considered the worst movie ever made and is now considered a cult classic) and Margaret the author of hundreds of paintings of women and children staring out with huge black eyes in the 1960s. Margaret, however, had to contend with her era’s sexism, a period when women who created anything were looked down upon.
A product of that pastel-colored suburbia Burton depicted so well in “Edward Scissorhands,” Margaret (Amy Adams) leaves her abusive husband behind and, with daughter Jane, hightails it to San Francisco where she hopes to make a name for herself as an artist. She initially makes a living by painting designs in a furniture factory and by drawing kid portraits at local art fairs. She meets fellow artist Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) at one of these fairs. He is suave, charming, a gentleman. He claims to have studied art in France. And he sees potential in her work.
Totally enthralled by this man, and in danger of losing her daughter, Margaret marries Walter. He soon begins to market their work around town and convinces the owner of a nightclub to let him stage an exhibit of their art work near the club’s bathroom. Only Margaret’s work catches the attention of the club’s patrons and, after a much publicized barroom incident, people begin to flock to the club to see the work. Walter starts claiming his wife’s work as his own (since she signs it only as Keane). “From now on, you and I are the same,” he tells her with a wolfish smile and Margaret meekly goes along with the ploy. Walter soon puts all his marketing skills to work, concocting phony stories about his inspiration and background while Margaret churns one painting after another. Sales take off; Walter opens a gallery and starts the mass production of her work as posters, postcards and other merchandise. The paintings are met with scorn by critics and art patrons, yet they sell like hot cakes.
Margaret may have been a willing accomplice at first, but the charade soon begins to take its toll as her husband gains in stature while she toils alone in the studio, lying to her friends and family. And when she begins to paint in a different style, you can feel the artist slowly but surely reclaiming her space. Her ordeal eventually ends in the courts.
Amy Adams is magnificent as Margaret: restrained and poignant, you can feel her frustration, despair and guilt as she tries to maintain appearances as well as her quiet joy as, brush in hand, she begins to draw the first lines of her next work. But Waltz nearly steals the film as the smooth-talking, snake-oil selling, overbearing, repugnant Walter. Waltz’s performance in the courtroom towards the end of the film is so comically outrageous, it plays almost as a tribute to a similar scene in Woody Allen’s early comedy “Bananas.”
But the film is so much more than a biopic or a pas de deux for Adams and Waltz. The Keanes’ story gives Burton, the “Ed Wood” scriptwriting team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski the opportunity to address issues of equality, discrimination and repression, of the eternal struggle between art and commerce and between low art and high art. They do so without ever preaching to the audience; these themes are an intrinsic part of the story, what gives it its meat, its substance.
Other than a sequence in a supermarket where Margaret hallucinates that every customer has her paintings’ big eyes, Burton keeps his trademark surreal touches to a minimum. In doing so, he acknowledges that the story itself is bizarre enough, that it does not need any visual hijinks to tell it. He trusts the story, something he has not done in a very long time. And that is a very good thing. Burton has recovered his storytelling mojo…for now.