Tim Burton's "Big Eyes" tells the true story behind a series of paintings that remain emblematic of middle-market tastes during the early 1960s. The paintings are known as Keanes -- portraits in oil of scruffy moppets with enormous, saucer-shaped eyes. The figures may be seen crying or holding kittens or both.
Burton, a director with a deep love of kitsch ("Pee-Wee's Big Adventure"), camp ("Dark Shadows") and outsider art ("Ed Wood"), may seem the ideal director to make a mockery of Margaret Keane, the unassuming housewife behind those critically reviled but hugely popular paintings. Instead, "Big Eyes" is one of Burton's most empathetic films, a story of female independence and self-discovery told with humor, tenderness and respect. It turns out that Margaret, played by Amy Adams, for years allowed her showboating husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz), to take credit for her paintings. Not until the 1980s was she definitively acknowledged as the creator of millions of dollars' worth of work.
It's a doozy of a story, set in an endlessly fascinating era (the cusp between old-world America and the emerging counterculture) and a vibrantly colorful city (San Francisco). Burton does justice to all of it. The film sparkles with real-life details, such as the famous hungry i cafe, and includes countless sly costume touches, notably Walter's oh-so-painterly jeans and faux-French striped T-shirt. Adams gives Margaret great dignity even when playing the doormat for her husband (Waltz is in fine, flouncing form in the role) and nicely understates her transformation into a woman of courage and resilience. Terence Stamp plays a New York Times critic determined to protect America from bad art; Jason Schwartzman has a few brief scenes, all absolutely priceless, as a snotty gallery owner.
"Big Eyes" feels like Burton's attempt at a straight-ahead, feel-good biopic like "The King's Speech" (both films come from the Weinstein Company), and it's a delight from start to finish. Look for the real-life Margaret, now in her mid-80s, sitting on a park bench near San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts.