Though Tim Burton plays it straight in this movie about a monomaniac who uses his wife’s talent to feed his ego and become fabulously wealthy, the oversized peepers in the pictures Margaret Keane produced so prolifically matches the make-up style Burton typically uses to decorate his characters. “Big Eyes” is about mediocrity that makes Thomas Kincade look like Rembrandt. Keane’s one-every-15-minute portraits of children with huge, sad eyes go beyond kitsch in a way that makes their popularity bathetic. It’s also about showmanship, salesmanship, and entrepreneurial genius that Keane’s husband, Walter, uses to become a star and turn his wife’s paintings, credited to him, into a lucrative international sensation. You watch Christoph Waltz as Walter and you wonder why no one before him thought of mass production via screen prints, posters, T-shirts, coasters, dishes, etc. before he made a marketing art of such things.
Unfortunately, “Big Eyes” is as mediocre as Margaret Keane’s oeuvre. It’s enjoyable but it lacks substance. Themes, such as the control Walter places on Margaret and her daughter or the pathological extent of ego, remain too comical and cartoonlike to have any depth or make any statement about chauvinism or pathologies associated with self-grandeur. The Keanes’ story, even when it’s intense, is played for cuteness. Burton is right to keep everything light, and good at doing it, but the movie comes off as fluffy and an unfulfilling as a Keane masterpiece. The glory of the film is Christoph Waltz, who is fascinating no matter how irritatingly over the top his character becomes. Waltz is an actor of immediate charm. The minute you spot him on the screen, the movie brightens, and you want to find out about this ebullient and whimsical character. Even when he shows Walter’s seamier side, and makes a desperate move to influence a court case, Waltz amuses and fills the theater with energy. Amy Adams is also good. You see that her Margaret isn’t quite the dupe she seems to be and that she may be doing a little bit of manipulation on her until she tires and becomes fearful of Walter and is less amused by his stunning prowess as a businessman. Like a battered NFL wife, Margaret is willing to go along with Walter’s ruses and her own anonymity when she sees the $millions burgeoning in her bank account.
Adams, one of the more lauded young actresses of recent movie years, has a knack for channeling Doris Day, the exact actress you’d expect to see as Margaret had “Big Eyes” been made at the time of the Keanes’ success. Jason Schwartzman, Krysten Ritter, and Terence Stamp are amusing in supporting roles. “Big Eyes” won’t bore, but it’s definitely a movie for when you want a mindless flapdoodle, as opposed to a film with substance. Even “Night at the Museum” beats it for general entertainment value.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 70%.