The waifs Walter Keane made famous were known for their huge peepers. But look down at their mouths: Every one kept its lips pressed tight, as though to prevent a secret from escaping. That's where you see the real artist: Walter's shy wife Margaret (Amy Adams), who bitterly allowed her husband to take credit for a host of true, but unfair, reasons. (He made a better salesman; people don't buy "lady" art; his own ego.)
Walter (Christoph Waltz) was a jerk. But was he right — or at least, right-ish? That's one of the questions Tim Burton's candy-floss biopic, Big Eyes, dances past. Burton's film takes square aim at Walter — boy, was he a charismatic creep. However, the director also allows us to ask whether, frankly, Margaret's paintings were even any good. He doesn't dare answer the question, but the script (written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) lets a snotty gallery owner (Jason Schwartzman) groan, "Who would want credit?"
Adams and Waltz are good enough actors to keep us interested in how the ruse affects the Keanes' marriage, which at times feels like a '50s fairy tale with Margaret, a chain-smoking princess in capris, locked away in a secret chamber, grimly inking saucer-sized pupils for her cruel master. Still, the best parts of the film are watching how their saccharine pop art became a sensation at a time when modernist, cold-hearted blotches were the fashion. Burton also delights in exposing the hypocrisies of the fine-art world, which here is as cliquish, trendy, and snide as the mean girls at a prep school. Turns out all you need to join the cool kids is manufactured publicity and the genius to realize that the hoi polloi will spend money on mass-printed posters.
This is rich stuff for Burton. Like Keane, whose paintings New York Times art critic John Canaday (Terence Stamp) decries as "atrocities," Burton's faced his own creative paradox: The more money his films make, the more reviewers have dismissed them. Fairly, perhaps — especially in the case of his soulless mega-hit Alice in Wonderland. Yet you can't help but sense Burton nodding in agreement when Walter bellows at Canaday, "Just because people like my work, does that make it bad?"
Fortunately for Burton, Big Eyes is actually good. Not great, but good enough — the perfect middlebrow portrait of the ultimate middlebrow artist.