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Big Eyes


Walter Keane liked women with large, uh, eyes. In the early 1960s, he created an empire founded on paintings of sad children with massive moppet peepers. He was a pop icon, a talk-show fixture and — in Tim Burton's paint-by-numbers biographical drama — a sadistic Svengali who took credit for the work of his wife, Margaret. Amy Adams portrays the latter in the most colorless role of her career.

Christoph Waltz plays Keane as a megalomaniac cad who sweet-talks his bride into going along with the ruse because nobody buys "lady art." Besides, he assures her, "Your pocket, my pocket — what's the difference?" One of the movie's many problems is that the script wants to have it both ways: It suggests Margaret was a browbeaten victim of her husband's greed while making it clear she was actually a willing participant in the scam.

The two meet at a San Francisco art fair and marry shortly thereafter. Walter makes the rounds to galleries in search of a showplace for his work and his wife's. Jason Schwartzman has a one-note part as a snooty exhibitor but proves unable to do much with dialogue like "Clear out the clutter before the taste police arrive."

Walter has better luck when he strikes a deal with the owner of a nightclub to rent space on his walls. The next thing he knows, everyone from suburban squares to movie stars is snapping up the pictures of wide-eyed waifs as fast as Margaret can churn them out. Well before Warhol conceived of his factory, Walter Keane brainstormed the mass reproduction of images on posters and postcards. He earned millions and, according to Life magazine, made the paintings the most popular in the world.

The Keane saga is a fascinating one, and Burton could've taken it in any number of directions. Unfortunately, he chose the dullest. Instead of giving Big Eyes the Ed Wood treatment (the picture is scripted by the team responsible for that 1994 classic), he inexplicably turns it into a Lifetime movie, contorting the couple's story into a feminist fable with far from convincing results.

Big Eyes is all Walter and no Margaret. Burton is so intent on painting Keane as a cartoon creep that he concocts scenes such as one where Walter tries to burn down his house with his family inside. But he offers scant insight into Margaret's psychology or process. At one point, she's asked why she paints the giant eyes, and Burton actually has her answer that they're "windows to the soul."

Two observations. First, Walter Keane may not have painted those pictures, but that doesn't mean he didn't suggest the feature that made them famous. Before Margaret, he was married to designer Barbara Ingham, with whom he created a line of toys called Susie Keane's Puppeteens. Walter painted the wooden dolls, which were distinguished by — you guessed it — big eyes. I'm just saying.

Second, Burton doesn't even pretend to approach the material without bias. He purchased the rights from Margaret Keane. The screenwriters have gone on record as being interested only in her version of events. Press accounts confirm that the filmmakers rebuffed efforts made by members of Walter's family (he died in 2000) to document his side of the story.

Keep in mind that the filmmaker has not only been collecting Keanes since the '90s but has even commissioned portraits of his wife and others by Margaret, and I think it may be fair to suggest a conflict of interest. That might be a bigger problem if the film weren't so shallow, over the top and instantly forgettable that "interest" is unlikely to prove much of an issue.