To call “Big Eyes” a Tim Burton movie is a bit of a bait and switch. True, Burton directed the film, whose subject, the painter Margaret Keane, he has long admired. Best known for her sticky-sweet paintings of doe-eyed waifs that became the middlebrow rage in the late 1950s and 1960s, then kitschy collectibles of high-ironic style decades later, Keane seems like the ideal subject for Burton: a visual-art analogue to filmmaker Ed Wood, to whom Burton paid homage so gloriously in a 1994 film.
Although suffused with similar period design elements, “Big Eyes” doesn’t approach the sublime or subversive heights of “Ed Wood.” Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karazsewski, the film has a much more conventionally uplifting feel, which probably suits its protagonist more than the usual Burton combination of worship and winking playfulness.
Portrayed by Amy Adams in a restrained, mouselike performance, Keane comes across as sympathetic but not terribly deep, an admirably hardworking single mom interested in numerology and spirituality, but too skittish and afraid to verbalize what drives and frightens her the most. As with Reese Witherspoon’s character in “Wild,” it’s the female journey of self-discovery and empowerment that “Big Eyes” is interested in. For Keane, that journey was one from put-upon housewife and weekend painter to victim of a controlling husband and patriarchal art world, finally becoming the standard-bearer for claiming the social space she once passively ceded to sexism and self-doubt.
Admittedly, that’s an engrossing, even awe-inspiring trip. “Big Eyes” begins in the late 1950s, when Keane — then Margaret Ulbrich — leaves her husband and their northern California tract home with her daughter and portfolio in tow. She lands in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, gaining employment as a commercial artist. (As symbolism would have it, her job entails literally crawling back into the crib to painstakingly paint Humpty Dumpty on the headboard.) At the same she begins trying to sell luridly sentimental pictures of big-eyed urchins, in the midst of abstract expressionism at its most macho and heroic.
Margaret is discovered one day by a fellow would-be bohemian, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a glad-handing gadabout who one minute scolds her for undervaluing herself and the next proposes to her, insisting that she should be treated like a princess. Such is the dialectic that pushes and pulls Margaret throughout “Big Eyes,” which chronicles how Walter came to take credit for her work and mastermind its mass reproduction, an act of artistic and commercial fraud that culminated in a blockbuster trial in 1970.
As with Keane’s beguiling, come-hither ragamuffins, it’s impossible not to like “Big Eyes,” which presents its heroine as a genuine, if self-effacing proto-feminist pioneer. The actual quality of her art only comes into question by way of art critic John Canaday (played, with icy hauteur, by Terence Stamp). While the Keanes are being commissioned by the likes of Joan Crawford and Natalie Wood, Canaday fulminates against the works of an “appalling, grotesque, tasteless hack.” This is why society needs critics, he rants, “to protect them from such atrocities.” (Amen, brother.)
“Big Eyes” is technically and aesthetically attractive. Clearly in love with the groovy color palettes and streamlined contours of the era, Burton delivers “Big Eyes” with few of his signature imaginative touches, save for a couple of creepy hallucinations, one staged next to the Brillo boxes and Campbell’s Soup cans that would soon inspire Andy Warhol.
But, as provocative as the questions it raises are — questions about connoisseurship vs. populism, personal expression vs. the market, and the dark arts of press, publicity and shrewd self-invention — the film’s achievements stay on the surface of those themes rather than plunging deeper. Burton and the screenwriters skate along the particulars of the plot — and admittedly, it’s a whopper — while Waltz hams it up with an over-ingratiating performance, his face permanently plastered with a lupine, opportunistic grin. Like Walter himself, Waltz continually hijacks “Big Eyes,” overcompensating for Adams’s low-key performance by taking big, bullying bites out of every sun-kissed scene he in which he appears.
Meanwhile, Margaret stays meekly in the background, even when she finally begins to find and use her own voice. Chalk it up to her native Southern gentility, deeper wellsprings of humility and serene self-confidence — or Adams’s own tentative, flat-affect portrayal — but the heroine of what Burton clearly intended as a real-life feminist parable remains strangely inert throughout her own story, a stance belied by the still-vital figure the artist, now in her 80s, presents today.
Then again, maybe the best way to take Margaret Keane seriously — if not as a painter, then as a revolutionary icon — is to leave her mysteries intact. “Big Eyes” presents viewers with the image of a woman who, like the heroine in “Wild,” manages to tap her deepest sadness to find the source of her greatest strength.
★ ★ ★
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains thematic elements and profanity. 105 minutes.