At heart, Big Eyes is a just a drama about a codependent relationship that strays into abusiveness, in which the wife finally finds the strength to walk away from a domineering husband.
Except that Tim Burton's latest film is about the marriage of Walter and Margaret Keane, a pair of painters who, in their own way, changed the way America thought about art and Art. They influenced Andy Warhol with innovations in the ideas about how to sell their work, even as their kitsch paintings of saucer-eyed children who look like they're about to cry became both a punchline and a marketing bonanza.
This strange story, with a script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who also wrote Burton's Ed Wood), is not well-known and so serves as fodder for a fascinating time-capsule tale of a different part of the 1960s, which has nothing to do with Vietnam, civil rights, the space program or the counterculture.
That may be why this is Burton's most restrained film since Sweeney Todd - perhaps because the script requires no stylistic commentary, one of Burton's worst habits. This is the Burton who made Ed Wood and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, not the self-indulgent Burton of Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows.
Amy Adams plays Margaret Ulbrich, a housewife in early 1950s California who takes her daughter and leaves her husband, a daring move for that time period. She moves to San Francisco, where she works as a commercial artist, while pursuing her dream of being a painter on the side. As played by Adams, Margaret obviously derives a sense of both comfort and accomplishment from the images she paints.
Her paintings all utilize her daughter as the model - and all look the same, in terms of the large, limpid eyes on the faces of every child on her canvases. She sells them at weekend art shows in a San Francisco park.
At one such show, the quiet Margaret meets and is swept away by Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a charmer with a suave intercontinental patter highlighted by a hint of European accent.
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