Big Eyes movie review: painted into a corner

Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

Big Eyes green light

A bitter feminist fairy tale about a woman betrayed by love and trust and crafted by culture to be vulnerable to the charms of a con-artist husband.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Amy Adams and Tim Burton

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

It’s like a feminist parable, except it’s true. Margaret Keane created and painted all those sentimental waifs with the huge eyes that stared out of kitschy posters and greeting cards in the 60s and 70s (and I seem to recall them being hugely popular right into the 80s, too), but her husband, Walter, took all the credit for them until… well, check out the delightful Big Eyes to find out how it ended. This is director Tim Burton’s (Frankenweenie) most down-to-earth movie ever — his only down-to-earth movie, really — and yet the always exquisite Amy Adams (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) lends it the air of a bitter fairy tale as a painter and single mother in 1950s San Francisco who comes under the sway of the charming yet conniving Walter (Christoph Waltz: Spectre), a painter himself, though more con artist than artist. If we’re being generous, we can say that the sniveling weasel — Waltz is truly a magnificent bastard here — didn’t set out to appropriate his wife’s work: he stumbled upon it as a marketing tactic, because who wants to buy a woman’s art, anyway? (And he did also come up with the ingenious idea to sell cheap prints of expensive canvases, which is sheer marketing brilliance.)

Adams’ innate sweetness, so much smarter than Margaret’s saccharine work, and never cloying, creates a deeply sympathetic portrait of a woman who was betrayed not only on a personal level by her own love and trust but also by a world that didn’t leave her much option but to marry the first seemingly decent man who asked her purely to ensure the basic security and comfort of herself and her child, and then to agree to a fraud that became more difficult to extricate herself from the more successful they were. Her naïveté may have been all her own, but her vulnerability was culturally constructed, right down to the bad advice she gets from a priest about how the Bible says “husbands know best.” We can wonder whether she could have been so hugely popular on her own, without Walter’s hucksterism, but we can also safely guess that she would not. And that’s even more criminal than what Walter did.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Big Eyes for its representation of girls and women.

share and enjoy
If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
If you haven’t commented here before, your first comment will be held for MaryAnn’s approval. This is an anti-spam, anti-troll measure. If you’re not a spammer or a troll, your comment will be approved, and all your future comments will post immediately.
notify of
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
view all comments
Mon, Apr 11, 2016 9:18pm

I feel like calling her work saccharine is sort of a disservice to the artist being portrayed here.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  IntrepidNormal
Tue, Apr 12, 2016 5:38pm

Really? Why? Even people who like her work like it because it is *very* sweet.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Tue, Apr 12, 2016 7:52pm

I feel like saccharine is always used as an insult, I’ve never seen it used in a positive sense. Sweet is what I’d call them. And I got the impression from the movie that while she wasn’t terribly respected by critics, she did believe in her work and had something to say, not to mention real talent. But that is just one person’s opinion.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  IntrepidNormal
Wed, Apr 13, 2016 9:44am

To be fair, I wasn’t using “saccharine” in a positive way. Her work — or some of it, the stuff that made her famous — can be saccharine and not very good, and she can be an interesting person with a story worth telling at the same time.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Wed, Apr 13, 2016 5:02pm

Fair enough. I guess I have a soft-spot for the paintings because I had one hanging in my room as a kid, and I thought it was about the creepiest thing ever (in a good way). But then again my sophomore research paper was titled “The High Art of Kitsch.” I think the fact that she was cranking the things out like assembly line candies didn’t help, but considering why that happened it’s understandable.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  IntrepidNormal
Wed, Apr 13, 2016 9:49pm

I loved this movie too!

I had one hanging in my room as a kid

Uh… now that you mention it, I suddenly recall having one of those big-eyed waifs on my bedroom wall when I was little…

Tonio Kruger
Sat, Jul 16, 2016 2:08am

I found this flick to be surprisingly good for a Tim Burton movie, especially since it can be seen as a darker side of the same story he told in his Ed Wood movie. Only in this case, the Ed Woodish character’s attempts to make up for his own lack of talent were not quite as harmless as those of the original Ed Wood.

Of course, this being a Tim Burton film — and knowing Burton’s love of old horror movies — I can’t help but wonder how big a coincidence it is that many of Walter Keene’s outfits and mannerisms in this flick seemed deliberately reminiscent of the Walter Paisley character in the 1959 Roger Corman flick A Bucket of Blood, yet another movie about a talentless artistic wannabe.