By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — She did the work, but he took the credit.
That’s the nutshell plotline for Big Eyes, director Tim Burton’s comedy-drama about marrieds Margaret and Walter Keane.
She was an artist, he was a con artist. She was a painter, he was a spectacularly unethical entrepreneur.
Christoph Waltz portrays Walter, the unproductive and untalented artist who let the world believe that it was he and not his wife, Margaret (played by Amy Adams), a single mom who had left a bad marriage and painted all those kitschy portraits of huge-eyed kids and sad-eyed clowns and needy dogs and cats that folks were clamoring for in the 1960s -– and that art critics were giggling about and dismissing out of hand.
The paintings are signed “Keane,” which is the truth. But no matter how you slice it, Walter was just her promoter, yet he claimed the credit for creating the paintings and kept up that deception and her subjugation until she eventually took him to court.
And how in this imbalanced San Francisco marriage did exploitative husband convince naïve wife to go along with his posture? By convincing her that nobody buys “lady art” and that the paintings and the various auxiliary merchandise –- posters, calendars, books, postcards –- would sell more readily if people believed they were the work of a man.
That he may have been right about that doesn’t make his stance any more palatable. And once the Keanes had perpetrated the fraud, he claimed that if they came clean about the charade, they’d end up poor and in jail.
Adams turns in another terrific performance as the gifted but subservient spouse making her way incrementally in the direction of empowerment, but Waltz’s one-note rendering of the despicable, fast-talking hustler and pathological liar is cartoonishly broad, a pure villainous caricature.
Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who earlier wrote another biopic, Ed Wood, for director Burton) maintain a tone of whimsical bemusement even as they paint a portrait of male dominance and female submissiveness that is infuriating to witness.
But the director seems more interested in the furnishings and period detail than the psychological marital dynamic that makes the material fascinating in the first place.
Once again, style leaves substance in the dust.
With two-time Oscar winner Waltz and five-time Oscar nominee Adams with brushes in hand, you’d think that Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Batman, Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) had exactly the colors he needed to build his vivid feminist case. But it’s almost as if Adams and Waltz are in different movies.
So we’ll frame 2 stars out of 4. Amy Adams sparkles, but there are a few too many big lies in Big Eyes.