Tim Burton has always loved his kitsch, from Pee-Wee Herman to Ed Wood to Mars Attacks! trading cards. Turns out Burton loves also include Margaret Keane, painter of doe-eyed waifs, whose work the director has collected for years. Now, in an ultimate act of fandom, Burton has turned Keane's career and relationship travails into the cockeyed dramedy Big Eyes.
Like Burton's Ed Wood and Milos Forman's The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon, Big Eyes comes with a screenplay by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, masters of fact-based kookiness. Opening in 1958 Northern California (a boost in fun factor for local viewers), the picture wistfully evokes, in Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography and Rick Heinrichs' production design, the VistaVision and Technicolor of the era. Newly arrived San Franciscan Margaret Ulbrich, a runaway single mother, quickly runs afoul of Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a man whose unctuous repertoire of false emotion spans a wolfish grin and crocodile tears ("All I ever wanted was to support myself as an artist...I'm just a Sunday painter").
Walter moves quickly to woo and wed Margaret, but their marriage sours rapidly, in no small part due to a husband's jealousy over his wife's talent and incipient success. Walter gets his paintings—every one a Parisian street scene—on the walls of the famed Hungry i nightclub, but it's Margaret work that draws attention, prompting Walter to swoop in and claim credit for work he initially dismissed as unsellable "lady art." The conflict therein defines the downward course of the Keanes' marriage, culminating in a trial straight out of a Marx Brothers movie.
With deadpan deftness, Adams walks a line in portraying Margaret as a pop artist (if an unironic one) and flowering feminist hero, but possessed of a double-edged naivete: without it, she would never have achieved such success, but with it, she also became prone, for better or worse, to Walter and, later, the Jehovah's Witnesses (Adams also wears Colleen Atwood's perky period costumes well). Waltz throws caution to the wind to make Walter an enjoyable if cartoony riff on the banality of evil, while Danny Huston brings in a touch of Sweet Smell of Success as ink-stained wretch Dick Nolan ("I make things up for a living. I'm a reporter").
Burton pokes fun at Keane's art, but he kids because he loves, and Big Eyes productively asks the question of whether the paintings are art or kitsch (probable answer: both). The specter of Andy Warhol hovers over the story: a Warhol epigram opens the film, and Walter snipes, "That fruit fly stole my act" in reference to the idea of mass producing art for maximum consumer consumption. And though Burton has always followed the offbeat of a different drummer, there's a twinkle in Big Eyes' line "What's wrong with the lowest common denominator? That's what this country was built on!"
Anchor Bay's Blu-ray release of The Weinstein Company's Big Eyes shines in its A/V presentation and adds value with a couple of strong video-based bonus features (though, alas, no feature-length commentary from Burton). Picture quality excels, particularly in the crucial area of color, with rich rendering of the film's evocation of '50s era Technicolor as well as the hues in Keane's paintings. Detail is likewise excellent, taking a spotless source and achieving an overall crisp look, anchored by a rock-solid black level (the only quibble is a fleeting instance of banding). As for the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, it's up to the task of recreating the theatrical audio: as a mostly talky experience, dialogue successfully takes precedence (though it's not perfectly prioritized in an early city scene, perhaps that's endemic to the source: I can't recall) even as the mix provides environmental ambience supported by surround channels, and robust music cues.
In the disc's Special Features area, "The Making of Big Eyes" (21:33, HD) does a nice job of covering the expected topics with key cast and crew: the history behind the drama, including the original Keane paintings and their impact on the art world and culture; the working style and approach to the material of Burton; and perspectives on the characters and the meaning of the story.
"Q&A Highlights" (33:55, HD) compiles footage of two Q&A events that acompanied screenings of the film. The first gathers writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Margaret Keane and Jane Keane, and Amy Adams, in a session moderated by Scott Mantz. In the second, Anthony Breznican moderates a chat with Tim Burton, Adams, Christoph Waltz, Krysten Ritter, and Jason Schwartzman.
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