Tim Burton’s directorial filmography, now thirty titles long, can be neatly divided into two camps. On one side are safe, middle-of-the-road, would-be commercial audience pleasers such as Alice in Wonderland, Sweeney Todd, Dark Shadows, Planet of the Apes, and Batman. In the other, smaller category dwell the eccentric, self-consciously grotesque, clearly more personal projects any self-respecting art school grad would love to sink his teeth into, à la Ed Wood, Frankenweenie, and Burton’s latest release, Big Eyes.
You can almost see contemporary studio executives grinding their teeth over the box office prospects of a story about a bunch of kitschy paintings from the 1960s. The sad-mugged, enormous-eyed children in the oils popularized by artists Walter and Margaret Keane (played by Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams) were a phenomenon of their day. People either loved them or hated them, but thanks to cheap reprints and posters, nearly everybody had to look at one on a daily basis. The nakedly pathetic “Keane kids” were virtually inescapable, like poker-playing dogs or the portraits of a blue-eyed Jesus whose eyes seemed to follow the viewer around the room.
The real creator of the Keane kids was Margaret, not her hustler husband Walter, who claimed credit for years and received all the accolades. It begins in San Francisco’s North Beach in the late 1950s. Single mother Margaret and her daughter move to San Francisco, where Margaret works at a furniture company and sells her paintings at sidewalk art fairs. She’s spotted by realtor and fellow weekend aesthete Walter, who peddles “scenes of Montmartre” and has a gift for sales pitches. Shrewd Walter sees something in the big-eyed waifs (“You paint ‘em like pancakes,” he enthuses), and after they move in together he convinces cafe owner Enrico Banducci (Jon Polito) to clear a tiny space for “Walter’s” (Margaret’s) work in a passageway near the restrooms at Banducci’s nightclub, the hungry i. Soon the tykes are selling like pancakes too, and Margaret acquiesces when Walter convinces her that a woman artist can never be taken seriously, and that he should be the public face of the operation. The Keane kids go viral, Margaret and Walter make a fortune, but she begins nursing serious misgivings.
Adams and Waltz are perfectly matched as the lamb and her designated fleecer — she with her Southern accent and quiet pride in her work, he with his unctuous, soothing, irresistible stratagems. Not everyone is wowed, though. The arts establishment turns up its nose at Margaret’s sorry little boogers, particularly critic John Canaday of The New York Times (Terence Stamp, hurling phrases such as “tasteless hack” and “Art should elevate, not pander”). None of that Emmett Kelly pre-fab pathos for them. On the other side are Joan Crawford, Natalie Wood (both of whom commissioned Keane portraits), and millions of ordinary folks who can’t get over the cute sadness on display. Meanwhile there’s a rumor that someone is making up “war stories” to go with the kids’ faces. Imitations flood the market. Those big eyes are red hot, but Margaret rebels by going into her Modigliani period and eventually lowering the boom on Walter.
Cal Arts alum Burton has an indecent amount of fun with the Keanes and their era. Margaret, who lives and works in Sonoma County and maintains an online gallery, MargaretKeane.com, obviously touched a nerve in the collective psyche with her precious widdle kids. In the bustling nostalgic heyday of Norman Rockwell, Grandma Moses, and Walt Disney, Margaret Keane’s urchins found one or two un-assaulted nerve endings and claimed them for her own. Big Eyes is not a completely original take on a well-worn subject, but as in the tale of Ed Wood and his sincere filmmaking, there’s plenty to guffaw at.
Put it alongside Art School Confidential, My Kid Could Paint That, Exit Through the Gift Shop, the two Herb & Dorothy docs, and Mike Leigh’s new Mr. Turner in the cavernous “lives of the artists” museum. Neither masters of sensational banality Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, serial killer John Wayne Gacy (his other hobby was painting sinister clowns), nor legions of Japanese manga artists were dissuaded by Margaret Keane’s competition in the morbid preciousness department. Bad taste is timeless. As the late Walter Keane (who died in 2000) so eloquently puts it in the movie: “What’s wrong with the lowest common denominator? That’s what this country was built on.”