The Eyes Have It

Tim Burton tells the tawdry tale of Walter and Margaret Keene

Tim Burton’s mid-’60s comedy Big Eyes is about a fad many would prefer to forget—the reign of the highly marketable art of Walter and Margaret Keane. The Northern California–based couple are played by a luminous, frail Amy Adams and the ever vinegary Christoph Waltz. The Keanes’ specialty was figures of starving children with vastly oversized, pleading eyes, black holes in which gibbous-moon crescents of gold glowed.

The funny thing is that the highly sly script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski withholds judgment on the paintings. The film is a story of abuse, fraud and the nigh impossibility of fighting back against cuteness. Mostly, though, Big Eyes is a comedy of the ancient endless vaudeville of body and soul.

Margaret, a single mom in an era when that label really stung, is a pure creature who allows herself to be deluded by Walter’s scheming. She ends up enslaved in the attic, cranking out big-eyed kids as if they were SOS messages. Eventually, this soulful painter has her revenge on her greedy, slicker husband. There is a classic film’s faith here that the truth will out, with help from a self-satisfied but dogged press: Danny Huston as San Francisco Examiner columnist Dick Nolan, and Terence Stamp as art critic John Canaday.

It’s also a great movie about San Francisco, envisioned with great nostalgia and depicted with the belief that the past was a more colorful place. The movie pops the eyes in Kodachromish Hawaiian scenes and a tiki mansion in Hillsborough illuminated by a Matisse-blue swimming pool, and the city’s snobby veneer of sophistication instantly dissolves under a cascade of kitsch.

If the gear-shift from tragic-comedy into courtroom comedy is a little strained, Big Eyes is in the zone right between animator Frank Tashlin and genre-busting director Preston Sturges.

‘Big Eyes’ is playing in wide release in the North Bay.