The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Big Eyes

If you're of a certain age, you've probably seen one of the pictures. Maybe you owned one. Maybe your parents or grandparents did. If so, you likely were hypnotized by the eyes. The artist known as “Keane” created a phenomenon in the 1950s selling paintings and posters of children with massive, sad-looking eyes. The reasons why people responded so strongly to them are probably varied, but respond they did. Director Tim Burton tells the story behind these unusual creations in Big Eyes and, quite frankly, it's the first live-action movie he's made in a decade where you can tell he actually gave a rip about the material. This is more Ed Wood than Dark Shadows.

Amy Adams plays single mother Margaret, an aspiring painter who has just fled a bad marriage. Working in the park one day, she meets a charming fellow painter named Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz). His works are far less interesting than hers. He does generic Parisian street scenes, while she creates hypnotic portraits of big-eyed waifs. They fall in love and get married. Margaret begins signing her paintings with only her new last name, Keane, just as Walter does. This creates confusion. People think he is the artist behind her increasingly buzzed-about works. Ever the opportunist, Walter gladly takes all the credit. Before long, he's got Margaret working overtime to crank out more paintings, while he manages a business plan that makes them wealthy but also leaves her feeling resentful.

Big Eyes is as compelling a portrait of narcissism as you're likely to see. Walter Keane is a guy who recognizes his own lack of artistic talent, but uses a very refined talent for manipulation to make up for it. He continually convinces Margaret that he's actually doing her a favor. No one buys work from female artists. She's not exuberant enough to get out there and sell her own stuff. He's the one with the visionary business plan. Those are the sorts of statements bullshit artists specialize in. (Walter is an artist after all.) Big Eyes expertly depicts a master manipulator applying his trade, without regard for anyone but himself. Christoph Waltz wisely plays the character with a larger-than-life quality that serves to show how Walter bulldozes those around him, including (initially) his wife.

But that's only half the story. Walter is not really the focus of the movie, Margaret is. Big Eyes is about how her own eyes open wide. We sense early on that she is a strong woman. While she initially falls under Walter's spell, his lies and deceitful actions grow until she becomes tired of them. She wants credit for her own accomplishments. Here's a female character who wants to succeed, knows she can, and forcibly takes the reins from the man trying to keep her down. By the time Margaret takes Walter to court, she's gained the upper hand, leaving him in the submissive position for a change. There's a great feminist spirit inside Big Eyes, as it tells a story about a woman who won't let a man control her.

Tim Burton may seem like an odd choice to direct, but he clearly understands Margaret Keane's skewed artistic view of the world. Her paintings mean something to her, and they reflect the off-kilter way she sees other people. Burton brings that idea out by keeping the movie's tone firmly on her side. He also crafts a couple of deliberately weird shots/stagings designed to be the cinematic equivalent of her big-eyed children. The screenplay was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. When it comes to writing scripts about unusual real-life pop culture figures, they're the best. (Ed Wood, Man on the Moon and The People vs. Larry Flynt were theirs, as well.) They provide a compelling structure for telling Margaret Keane's tale, plus some hilariously witty lines of dialogue.

The writing and direction are very good, and Waltz is terrific as Walter, but Big Eyes truly belongs to Amy Adams. She perfectly captures Margaret's artistic sensitivity and eventual refusal to let her husband dictate the terms of her success. Best of all, she does so without cliché. Margaret Keane is neither a victim nor an aggressor. She's simply a woman who has a voice, momentarily loses it, then vows to find it again. Adams, with her inherent likeability and ability to project quiet strength, is the perfect choice to bring her to life.

Big Eyes is quite often funny, but it's also a very serious-minded story about the importance of protecting one's art from those who would seek to exploit it. The Keanes had an irresistibly unusual story - one that is extremely well told by this delightfully entertaining film.

( 1/2 out of four)

Big Eyes is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.

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