Big Eyes

The price of success

If you were a painter and the widespread successful release of your artwork depended on fraudulently attributing your work to your husband who is also a painter, would it be worth it? This is the central question of Tim Burton’s new film, Big Eyes, which is based on true events that happened in the 1950s and 60s in San Francisco.

In an attempt to sell their paintings, Walter takes credit for Margaret’s work, which becomes phenomenally successful, to the chagrin of art critics who consider the paintings nothing but kitsch.

Big Eyes stars Amy Adams as Margaret Keane, a woman who leaves her husband, moves to San Francisco with her young daughter, and tries to augment her income by selling her unique paintings of children with big eyes. Margaret and her paintings attract the attention of Walter Keane (played by Christoph Waltz), who then quickly marries Margaret so she can keep her daughter.

In an attempt to sell their paintings, Walter takes credit for Margaret’s work which becomes phenomenally successful to the chagrin of art critics who consider the paintings nothing but kitsch. Margaret is at first horrified that Walter has taken credit for her work, but she realizes that it is hard for women to sell their artwork (in those days) and that Walter is a great salesman. In other words, the success of her paintings and the wealth they bring in is entirely reliant on Walter taking credit for her work. This is the starting premise of Big Eyes and I will say no more, other than that the frustration and stress of keeping up such a big lie begins to wear Margaret down.

Big Eyes, which is full of bright colors, is anything but a typical Burton film. There is dark humor here and there are quirky moments throughout, but in most ways Big Eyes tells its story in a straightforward, competent way. For me, that may have been a mistake, as I will explain shortly.

Amy Adams is perfectly cast as Margaret. Eyes lie at the heart of this film and Adams’ eyes are great at conveying the emotional roller coaster she is riding. And if the real Walter had an outrageous volatile personality, then perhaps Waltz was perfectly cast as well. Waltz is fun to watch, and he’s an excellent actor, but I couldn’t help feeling he was a little over-the-top here. Both characters, however, are well-drawn and we can see the strengths and weaknesses of each, even if one character is painted as a villain.

Big Eyes is at its best when it satirizes the struggles of women in an abusive patriarchal society. The idea that a woman could feel that it’s okay to be kept “locked” in an attic all day producing paintings in secret is something out of a horror film, not a true story of twentieth-century life in North America.

This brings me back to my biggest complaint about Big Eyes. The story and one of the central characters (Walter) are shocking and horrifying. That sounds like something made to order for Burton’s typically twisted and dark comedies. I loved the gorgeous cinematography and sets of Big Eyes, which, along with a great score, brilliantly evoke the time and place, but I missed Burton’s unique vision and what that could have brought to the story.

On the other hand, by playing it straight, Burton gives us more to think about in terms of the price we are all willing to pay for success, whether it is financial success or the feeling that we are contributing something to the world. The cheat, in this case, is that we are not dealing with great art but with kitsch, which possibly changes the dynamics.

In Whiplash, one of the best films of 2014, we see the lengths student and teacher are prepared to go in order for the student to achieve greatness as a jazz musician drummer. That film left me wondering whether the pursuit of greatness could possibly be worth the cost, especially at a time when so much pressure is put on gifted young people (including young children) to pursue that greatness. But is there a difference between the pursuit of greatness (and the possible financial success that goes with it) and the pursuit of financial success? Margaret Keane certainly considered herself a serious artist, and her paintings were obviously adored by many, but there was, according to the critics, no greatness there. Does that change the question?

In my opinion, both Big Eyes and Whiplash are cautionary tales that ask us to consider whether the meaning of life is about pursuing success at any cost. The films’ answers to this question are actually quite ambiguous, which invites long discussion (always a good thing).

Big Eyes is rated PG-13.