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Stars: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Jon Polito, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp, Madeleine Arthur, Delaney Raye, James Saito
Director: Tim Burton
The mark of a really good biopic is that it grabs you and holds you even when you know nothing of the subject to begin with.
Tim Burton’s story of one of the most extraordinary art frauds in history all the more compelling prove this point of view to perfection. While there are a few elements of fantasy in Big Eyes, they arise out of vividly drawn and played character rather than from the kind of bizarre fairy tales for which Burton has become famous.
The ‘Big Eyes’ in question are those of the enigmatic waifs painted by American artist Walter Keane that became famous in the late 1950s and early 1960s, earning him fame and a considerable fortune as the creator of the eminently saleable paintings that even received an endorsement (I will leave you to decide for yourself if that had actual empirical artistic value) from Andy Warhol.
In fact, the paintings were actually created by his wife Margaret, vividly played by Amy Adams, who walked out of her first marriage (“All she had were her paintings in the truck and her daughter in the back”) and headed to San Francisco where she painted portraits of kids at art fairs before meeting and marrying ‘artist’ Walter Keane, chillingly portrayed by Christoph Waltz.
Before long, conman Waltz is passing off his wife’s work as his own. But while the paintings prove to be very profitable, their marriage crumbles, they divorce (but only after Waltz has demanded 100 more ‘big eye’ paintings from Adams. Finally Waltz meets his well-deserved comeuppance in court “This is a very strange case”, says the judge in what turns out to be a memorable understatement) after Adams, who now lives in Hawaii and become a Jehovah’s Witness, announces on radio that she was the creator of the money-spinning paintings…
For me, Big Eyes is probably the most enjoyable of Burton’s works since his classic biopic Ed Wood, whose screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski also provided Burton with the script for Big Eyes.
The film’s singular vision of an artist is fascinating.
Happily though, unlike far too many biopics, Burton achieves a potent balance between the real-life subjects and their work. Adams becomes an utterly convincing Margaret and Waltz, vividly veering between the kind of fake charm exuded in show business interviews and a cruel nastiness that makes Norman Bates seem a better choice for a flat-mate, is superb.
It’s not entirely harsh drama and marital cruelty, though.
The climactic courtroom scene when Waltz soars into full fatuous ‘Perry Mason’ mode (Burton neatly trails this metamorphosis earlier with a shot of Raymond Burr in black and white as Mason on television) and totally loses it (“Choreography is not necessary” states the judge) is a comic triumph and, for me, possibly the funniest courtroom scene since The Kentucky Fried Movie.
Supporting roles, too, are well cast and well played, notably Terence Stamp playing the snobbish real-life New York Times art critic John Canaday who summed up the Big Eyes paintings as “synthetic hack work,” he rants, “an infinity of kitsch’.
Big Eyes is anything but. Pure pleasure from start to finsh.
USA 2014. UK Distributor: Entertainment Film Distribtors. Colour.
106 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: 12A.
Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 0, Drugs 0, Swearing 2.
Review date: 22 Dec 2014