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Big Eyes, Review: Submissive painter and harmful charmer, making waifs

Big Eyes, Review: Submissive painter and harmful charmer, making waifs

Big Eyes! Horror? No. Psychological thriller? No way. Comedy? In part, yes. A biopic about a hypnotist? Close, but it’s about a painter. So this painter had really BIG eyes? Wrong. Her eyes were of normal dimensions, but she had a fixation for painting young children with their eyes disproportionately big. So where’s the story? In 2003, writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Man on the Moon, Auto Focus, The People v/s Larry Flynt, Ed Wood) came across the story of Margaret Keane, and spent ten years getting it on to the screen. Alexander says, “It’s a great piece of history that nobody knows. It weren’t true, I wouldn’t believe it.” Clever turn of phrase, but a lot of truth in it.

Meet the real Margaret, before seeing her as Amy Adams. Born in 1927 as Perry Dorris Hawkins, she first displayed her paintings in San Francisco’s North Beach in the 1950s.One of Margaret’s favorite artists is Amedeo Modigliani, and his art has had a major influence in the way she’s painted women, since circa 1959. After divorcing Walter in 1965, she married Dan McGuire in 1970. She was commissioned to paint celebrities like Liberace, Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner, Kim Novak, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Joan Crawford, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Helena Bonham Carter and Adlai Stevenson. The Cartoon Network series “The Powerpuff Girls” creator Craig McCracken styled his heroines after the “Big Eyes” waifs, and the girls’ teacher in the series was named Ms. Keane. At 87, Margaret continues to paint almost daily. 

Winning over Margaret’s heart, the two writers bought rights to her life-story as well. She said that she had been approached at least four times, but the duo convinced her to close the deal. They wanted to direct the film themselves, and made several aborted attempts in this direction, with Tim Burton producing. Finally, when Christoph Waltz made it mandatory that he would accept the offer of playing Walter Keane only if Tim directed, Alexander and Karaszewski had little hesitation in letting it go. Amy was not keen on the role, preferring strong, confident parts to ‘losers’ like Margaret. But she agreed to do a recce, and visited Margaret, before she decided to sign on the dotted line. It helped her make-up her mind. So, come July 2013, with Amy Adams on board to play Margaret, the film was rolling.

Like Ed Wood, the American film-director of yore, regarded by many as the worst ever peddler of his ‘art’, and endorsed by the Tim Burton film biography as such, Big Eyes is also Burtonesque. This too is about a marginalised artist who arrived on the scene in the last century, a woman (not a time when women could sell paintings under their own signature, reminds the film). It is also about her forger, pseudo ‘artist’ husband who makes a career and lots of money by selling her paintings under his name, and manipulating both her and the world of art, including almost all critics, to rake in the moolah. Only this time, the writer-director team of Ed Wood keeps the merit side of the art largely positive, till one determined critic tears it to bits.

Amy Adams was perhaps right in having some reservations about wanting to play a meek, submissive, dominated woman. Her glamorous image, albeit often toned down with the use of wigs, never really goes away. And that half seductive, half hesitant, half look half gaze, natural to her, is a hindrance here. She’s good, but the star of American Hustle, Man of Steel, The Fighter and Doubt could have been much better. Charm and menace have rarely co-existed in an actor with such symbiosis as they do in the persona of Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained, The Green Hornet, Carnage). But here too, you barely settle into his unanticipated charm when the harm begins to unfold, layer after layer. Waltz as a manipulative market-savvy, liar, forger and blackmailer shouldn’t surprise anyone. Perhaps he had to work harder on the charm bit.

Danny Huston as The Economist’s columnist Dick Nolan (Hitchcock, Wrath of the Titans) is the off-screen narrator and acquits himself well on screen too. A composite of various women acquaintances of Margaret and a sort of beacon, Dee-Ann is played by Krysten Ritter, of Life happens, Veronica Mars and Listen Up Philip. Considering it is an amalgam of many persons, she probably deserved better footage and some more depth in the role. However, she does come across as cheerful and charming. Good contributions come from Jason Schwartzman as the art gallery owner, James Canaday as the art critic of the New York Times (compelling) and the two girls who play the younger and older Jane (Margaret’s daughter), Delaney Raye (dead-pan precocious) and Madeleine Arthur.

Tim Burton will find many more takers for Big Eyes than he did for Ed Wood. Unfortunately, either the woman herself was a more than willing partner in the crimes against her, or a what is dismissively called a wimp, there is little in her to sympathise with. Living in an era that just preceded women’s emancipation in the USA, she seems to have done remarkably well: Ran out of her first marriage (for reasons barely touched upon in the film), divorced her second husband, sued Keane for slander and for appropriating her work, married a third time (left out of the film), runs a successful art business and continues to paint at 87.

Whether M/s Alexander, Karaszewski and Burton chose to make it this way, or Keane was really like that, viewers are bound to end up with terribly mixed emotions. Maybe that is why the film is being advertised as a comedy (see poster above). True, there are some crazy jokes, and some banal ones too, like, “I paint Big Eyes because the eyes are the mirror of the soul.” Burton just can’t get away with the Ed Wood hangover of characters who were either barely gifted or intellectually bankrupt, yet under constant delusion about having a modicum of talent. They are dead serious and committed about their work, while it is for the world around them, particularly their patrons and critics to ridicule them, laugh at them or to tear their art to shreds. You could go for the comedy too, keeping in mind that the humour here is neither black nor white, but various shades of grey. Can Big Eyes then be called a film ‘groir’, to go with ‘film noir’, a term coined in 1946 about the dark, bleak cinema of those times?

Rating: ***

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xD9uTlh5hI 

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.


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