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Behind Big Eyes And Its Art With A Keane Eye

Updated on April 2, 2015

People have said that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. The work of Margaret Keane will have most stating that her paintings are either beautiful or grotesque. The movie Big Eyes takes a look at the rise in popularity of her art, and the unusual backstory accompanying it. Amy Adams stars as Keane, a young mother in 1950s California who left her husband and took her daughter, Jane Ulbrich (Delaney Page) with her. With the help of her friend Dee-Ann (Krysten Ritter), Margaret and Jane relocated to San Francisco. Margaret gets a job at a crib factory and sells her art on the side. While trying to convince people to sit for portraits at an outdoor art market, she meets Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), who's also trying to sell art. He takes an immediate interest in Margaret and her portraits, and they become friends. When Margaret's ex-husband sues for sole custody of Jane, she accepts a proposal of marriage from Walter to counter claims that a single mother is an unfit one.

Walter then starts to use salesmanship to find creative ways to sell the paintings. He strikes a deal with nightclub owner Enrico Banducci (Jon Polito) and strikes a deal to rent the club walls for sales. A fight between the two that hits the media gives the Keane work sales. Walter, though, starts to take credit for Margaret's work, which features people with abnormally large eyes. Margaret reluctantly lets Walter take the credit as sales soar, and allows them to own homes and a gallery of their own. The Keane paintings have plenty of detractors, most notably John Canady (Terence Stamp), a noted art critic. Eventually, Walter insists that only he and she know who is painting these works, and that drives a wedge between Margaret and her friends and teeanaged Jane (Madeleine Arthur). When she can no longer stand the deception, isolation, and constant painting, she takes Jane and goes to their home in Hawaii. With the influence of some Jehovah's Witnesses, she starts to tell the truth about her own work, which leads Walter to sue her over the statements.

Director Tim Burton has introduced viewers to offbeat people and places ever since he hit the big screen with his first feature, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, in 1985. While his works of fiction sometimes have their merits, I prefer films like Big Eyes, based on the Keanes' actual experiences. Regardless of his true feelings, Walter knew how to sell, while Margaret did not. Once Walter started taking credit for Margaret's work, he didn't know how to stop. He enjoyed taking credit, no matter how much that approach hurt Margaret. The script comes from the same team, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who also provided the script for Burton's film Ed Wood. The writers show a love for the subject matter without being disrespectful to either Keane or her detractors. The turns the story takes might be hard to swallow were they not based on the decade-long relationship between Margaret and Walter. Burton gleefully lets the lies grow one by one until they can no longer withstand any scrutiny. The story might leave some wide-eyed, though not as wide-eyed as Keane's subjects.

Adams and Waltz have a great chemistry as people who unite with common goals, then slowly watch as the goals change, and they change into an odd couple. Adams shines as a woman trying to make a name for herself and a life for her family. As success comes, Margaret sees that neither goal may be likely. She knows why her work has big eyes, but she learns that Walter, while taking credit, has no interest in telling her tale of their creation. She may enjoy the financial success, but learns that nobody has as much interest in the work of MDH Keane - paintings which include the initials of her maiden name - as they do in the work simply signed as Keane and attributed to her husband. Waltz has a perfect mix of ingenuity and insanity as Walter, who made a lie his life, and never stopped taking credit for his wife's work. One of Waltz's best moments in the film comes in a heated exchange with Canady. Even after that, Walter showed his arrogance and defensiveness knew no bounds. Stamp is great in his role as Canaday, who finds Keane's popularity and sphere of influence to much to take. Also good in small roles are Polito, Danny Huston as reporter Dick Nolan, who narrates the film, and Jason Schwartzman as Ruben, a fellow gallery owner who initially rejected Walter's hawking of paintings.

The work of Margaret Keane will either be embraced or dismissed. Most art critics will fall into the latter category, but others, including Burton, collect her work. In the film, Keane states the cliche that they eyes are the windows to the soul when she talks about her inspiration. In Big Eyes, Margaret may enjoy painting and the attention brought to her art in particular, but she almost lost her own soul trying to live up to someone else's demands. Big Eyes smartly tells the story of Margaret Keane's still-popular art, and how someone she loved made her pay a high price for the attention it received. Big Eyes is one of Burton's best films, and shows how truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Big Eyes 3.5 stars. The eyes have it!


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