Casting Amy Adams to star in “Big Eyes” is one of the great no-brainers in Hollywood history.
Yes, the movie’s about Margaret Keane, the secret painter behind those “big-eyed waif” paintings and posters that dominated pop art of the pre-Andy Warhol ’60s. But mention that titular phrase and the first face that comes to mind is Adams, the sweet, soulful star of “Enchanted,” “Junebug” and “The Fighter.” It’s practically Adams’ Hollywood nickname.
And it’s no eye-opener that she is stunning in the part, a demure Southerner who marries a San Francisco hustler who transforms her art into a kitsch phenomenon in a sort of Golden Age of Kitsch. Adams’ big eyes invite us into the hurt she feels when her husband starts taking credit for her waifs, the sad resignation that sets in as she goes along with the lies, and the soul-crushing pain that comes with the withering reactions of the art establishment – critics included. Adams is great in a role she was born to play.
But Christoph Waltz and Tim Burton may be the real revelations here. Waltz, a two-time Oscar winner for taking on the outrageous and faintly charming sadists in a couple of Quentin Tarantino pictures, dials it down here. He makes Walter Keane a beguiler, a back-slapping teller of tall tales. We can see what the newly separated (with a young daughter) Margaret falls for. He is delightful, and if his stories of life in Paris, his Bohemian lifestyle choices and all the rest are suspect, his rash realization that Margaret is the one for him and that she needs him feels without guile. And since we know it isn’t, there’s the brilliance of the performance.
And Burton? Now an elder statesman among cinema eccentrics, he remakes himself for this delightful, light and moving film biography. There’s love in every frame, and not just the special effects-enhanced ones where Margaret starts to see everyone she meets with the oversized sad orbs that are “windows to the soul.” The director of “Edward Scissorhands” and “Ed Wood” must feel a kinship with the critically derided Keanes. He’s made his most conventional film and one of his most moving.
“Big Eyes” lovingly re-creates the late ’50s/ early ’60s San Francisco scene, where cool jazz, beat poets and pretentious art were all the rage. Keane couldn’t crack into galleries with his “Pissarro-influenced” Montmartre street scenes. But then he sees the puzzled, yet still dismissive reaction of one gallery owner (Jason Schwartzman) to his new wife’s big-eyed portraits. In quick, tried-and-true brushstrokes, we see Keane glad-hand his way to showing their art at the ultra-hip Hungry I jazz club. Keane has an eye for the main chance, and so does the story’s droll, cynical narrator (Danny Huston), a newspaper columnist who creates the notoriety that turns Margaret’s paintings into must-have art.
Except that the super-salesman Walter is taking credit – accidentally, at first, and then with a vengeance. Margaret is caught up in the “fraud,” bullied into producing more work by his “If you tell anyone, this whole empire collapses.” It’s an empire that made them rich.
Terence Stamp plays a huffy, self-righteous New York Times critic, Krysten Ritter a friend whom Margaret refuses to come clean with, and Madeleine Arthur the daughter, in later scenes, who has grown up only suspecting the lifetime of lies that her mother has told her.
But what sells the giddy fun of Walter’s empire-building chutzpah and the sorrow of Margaret’s invisible fame is the reason the movie could be made: Adams. From the first time we saw her on the screen, we knew what she was feeling and thinking, just from staring into those huge, hopeful and sometimes hurt eyes. Her big eyes make this “Big Eyes” one of the best pictures of the year.
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