Margaret Keane’s paintings of melancholy waifs with faces punctuated by big, dark, comically sad eyes were among the 1960s’ most famous images.
In “Big Eyes,” director Tim Burton and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski tell the story behind the big eyes. But their Keane biopic feels tentative and incomplete, especially alongside Burton’s 1994 biopic about gonzo indie filmmaker Ed Wood.
Keane is a more challenging biopic subject than the larger-than-life Wood. She’s quiet and submissive. She also lives in an era when women had fewer economic opportunities than now and were more likely to let men rule the household.
Amy Adams plays Margaret, creator of the big-eyed waifs. Adams is usually wonderful in whatever role she’s in. In the unfocused “Big Eyes,” Adams, like the rest of the production, doesn’t quite know where to step. Despite a great deal of attention paid to the film’s ’50s and ’60s look, the story doesn’t find its rhythm or tone.
“Big Eyes” has flashes of Burton trademarks. The 1950s-style subdivision from which Margaret and her daughter escape in the first scene is a model of conformity. The movie also contains a fleeting hallucinogenic episode. But such instances are teases. Burton and his screenwriters never grasp their story’s inherent oddity.
Margaret, a single mother with a young daughter, is more a craftsperson than an artist. Portraits of doe-eyed children are her specialty. On sunny days in the park with other more or less amateur artists, she draws children’s portraits for a pittance.
On such a day, Margaret meets Walter Keane. He’s displaying Parisian street scenes nearby. The extroverted Walter draws people while quiet Margaret is mostly ignored. But Walter is among the few who notice Margaret’s talent. He sees an opportunity.
Oscar winner Christoph Waltz co-stars as Walter, a character who’s supposed to be a charmer and great salesman. Walter, in real life, must have been such a man. His promotion and marketing of the big-eyed waif paintings made him rich.
Walter charms Margaret into marrying him. Later, he talks her into letting him take credit for her work.
“People don’t buy lady art,” he insists.
Waltz’s performance in “Big Eyes,” despite his Oscar wins for Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” and “Inglourious Basterds,” is more of a weasel than a charmer. Con artist Walter’s predatory grin is visible from miles in the fog. And “Big Eyes,” based on the true story of Walter’s years-long ruse, is less believable than fictional films.
Supporting characters also fail to convince or make much impact. They’re sketchy stereotypes, including San Francisco gossip columnist Dick Nolan. Played by a flippant Danny Huston, Nolan is Walter’s unwitting accomplice in fraud. Krysten Ritter breezes in pointlessly as Margaret’s wary-of-Walter beatnik friend, Dee-Ann. Jason Schwartzman’s gallery owner, Ruben, gets a brief moment of truth when he condemns Walter’s street scenes. Later, he’s got nothing to do but scowl.
Margaret’s lawsuit against Walter, depicted in an off-center courtroom scene, has no triumph. Like “Big Eyes” in general, it’s not ready for exhibition.