[Screen It]

"BIG EYES"
(2014) (Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A mid 20th century painter must contend with allowing her flamboyant husband to take credit for her works that are becoming increasingly popular with the public.
PLOT:
It's 1958 and Margaret Ulbrich (AMY ADAMS) has arrived in San Francisco with her young daughter, Jane (DELANEY RAYE), to escape from her husband. With the help of her friend, DeAnn (KRYSTEN RITTER), she gets settled in and takes a job painting designs on furniture, while also doing creative portraits at art fairs on the side. It's at the latter that she meets fellow painter Walter Keane (CHRISTOPH WALTZ) who is a successful commercial real estate agent and similarly sells his paintings on the side.

The two hit it off and are soon married, with Walter trying to peddle Margaret's works wherever he can. That includes a nightclub where he convinces the owner, Enrico Banducci (JON POLITO), to lease him wall space to display her work. When they come to blows over the placement of that, their tiff makes the front page news thanks to celebrity newspaper reporter Dick Nolan (DANNY HUSTON). It's not long before her work is a hit, but while trying to make sales of her paintings featuring children with oversized eyes, Walter takes credit for the work and convinces Margaret to continue that ruse.

As she toils away creating her paintings, he works as the showman, continuing to take credit and becoming something of a celebrity himself, all while keeping that secret from Jane (MADELEINE ARTHUR) who's now getting older. When Walter realizes they could make a lot of money selling mass-reproduced posters of her work, he becomes a national sensation, much to the chagrin of art critic John Canaday (TERENCE STAMP) who dismisses the paintings and their artistic merit. As their ruse continues, Margaret starts to head toward her breaking point, especially as Walter's behavior continues to devolve in his quest for more fame and money.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
As many a college student is apt to do, I often engaged in debates about all sorts of issues, even if my limited time on Earth and general lack of experience in and with the world at that time more often than not meant I was just bluffing my way through my side of the argument.

Some of the debates centered on what constituted art. Not being a big fan of modern art, I had issue with some strains of that qualifying for the description, such as when artists would simply throw paint onto a canvas and allow that randomness to stand in for skill. Others argued that I was wrong, saying that art could be anything, including someone simply balling up a piece of paper and then putting that on display. Yeah, I know, it represents man's isolation and being crushed by societal conventions. Or old people being discarded. Or deforestation.

Of course, some argue that film isn't true art, and while I've seen plenty of Adam Sandler films that would make me lean toward that assessment, there are true auteurs in the world of cinema who make lovely looking pictures with plenty of associated meaning and the ability to elicit emotion from the viewer.

In that sense, making an arty movie about artist Margaret Keane would seem to be a no-brainer. Born Peggy Doris Hawkins way back in 1927, and still working today, Keane is likely unknown to most anyone under the age of 50.

Those older than that might not recognize her name, but they'll surely remember her signature artistic works that included children with enormous, over-sized eyes. And that's because those paintings and related prints literally became a national sensation in the 1960s, turning Keane or, more accurately and what would turn out to be a scandal, her husband into a well-known celebrity.

Her tale is brought to life in "Big Eyes," a period piece about art, deception, fraud, gender roles and more, all brought together by none other than director Tim Burton. Known for making artsy if commercially popular films, Burton delivers what could be one of his most conventional pics.

Aside from a brief moment where his protagonist (a terrific Amy Adams) imagines seeing people, including her own mirror reflection, having such huge eyes, there's little here to point toward Burton's classic signature style. That doesn't mean it's a misfire by any means, but rather that anyone expecting the filmmaker's usual quirkiness might be surprised by how this is otherwise a fairly straightforward and no frills look at the true story.

Fleeing from what's presumably a bad marriage, Margaret arrives in San Francisco with her young daughter where she tries to make ends meet in a variety of art related ways. She eventually meets a charming, showman type man and fellow painter (Christoph Waltz) who wins her over, marries her, and then tries selling her art.

For a number of reasons, he starts to take credit for her work, with the arrangement being she'll toil away in the studio doing her creative thing, while he'll be the public face of the art in terms of sales and PR. That eventually escalates to the point that a celebrity beat newspaper reporter (Danny Houston) starts covering Mr. Keane's art, and when it finally goes national, a stuffy art critic (Terence Stamp) decides to offer his scathing opinion about the paintings and what he sees as their lack of artistic merit.

Beyond addressing what does and doesn't constitute art, the script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski also delves into the cult of personality, gender inequalities in the middle of the 20th century, strains on marriages where the husband and wife work together and more.

It's intriguing and engaging stuff, and while no particular aspect of the film -- or the collection of some or all of them -- blew me away, and despite it (thankfully) not trying to be too artsy in its own right, the work offered by Burton and company is solid from start to finish. Whether or not it ends up added to some college student's debate quiver over such matters remains to be seen, but "Big Eyes" is undeniably good enough to be considered thought-provoking art. It rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed December 23, 2014 / Posted December 25, 2014


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