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New Release Review - Big Eyes

The story of art fraudster Walter Keane, who passed off his wife Margaret's paintings of big-eyed waifs as his own work.

Directed by: Tim Burton

Starring: Christoph Waltz, Amy Adams, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Danny Huston, Terence Stamp



Tim Burton reteams with Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the writing duo behind his finest two hours, 1995's Ed Wood. With the aid of a woefully miscast Christoph Waltz - an actor whose infiltration of American cinema is rather baffling, given how many more talented stars Europe has to offer - Burton and his writers have turned what is essentially a tale of spousal abuse into a Doris Day movie, one where Rock Hudson attempts to murder Miss Day, in what could be the most tonally misjudged film of the year.
Waltz, whose American accent rivals Shia Labeouf's British brogue from Nymphomaniac as the year's worst, is Walter Keane, an American artist whose paintings of big-eyed children sparked a cultural phenomenon in the US during the '60s, becoming the American equivalent of Europe's Crying Boys. However, it was Walter's wife Margaret (Adams) who actually painted the cult, though crass, images. For the purpose of cheap drama, Burton's film removes the grey areas of their relationship in favour of a black and white tale of a domineering antagonist and a mousy protagonist.
The first lie comes early on, when we see Margaret painting her soon to be famous waifs prior to meeting Walter. In reality she only began to paint the waifs after their marriage, inspired by puppets created by Walter and his first wife. But even though Burton twists the story for his own simple means, he's unqualified to tell the tale of domestic abuse he's morphed the true life events into. The technicolor Doris Day approach is fine for the first half of the movie, and despite his terrible accent, Waltz makes for an amusingly loveable rogue. But there's the rub - we shouldn't find this character loveable. At the movie's halfway point, the plot takes a dark turn as Walter becomes increasingly aggressive, growing paranoid that his wife is on the verge of letting the cat out of the bag. Burton mishandles this aspect in a highly contentious manner, playing a death threat as a comic moment and filming Walter's attempted murder of his wife and adopted daughter like a parody of the climax of The Shining.
This should be Adams' movie, but Burton pushes her aside to make room for the over the top gurning of his leading man. Likewise the supporting characters - Schwartzman's repelled art dealer, Stamp's equally horrified art critic, and Huston's journalist, whose narrative opens the film but then only appears intermittently - serve no purpose beyond delivering convenient exposition at key moments.
There's a potentially great film to be made from this story - one that explores the meaning of art, the contrast between the taste of critics and the general public, and the explicit sexism that pervaded American society for most of the 20th century - but this isn't it.
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