What a yearning for the past we see in the work of Tim Burton. When he focuses on the future, he creates a movie like his undistinguished “Planet of the Apes” remake. Turn the clock back, however, and his homesick love for antique bubble gum playing cards, sci-fi pulp novels and B-movie horrors hits nostalgia overdrive.
After “Ed Wood,” his delightful 1950s biography of America’s most dreadful filmmaker, Burton once again offers a true story that scratches the kitsch. “Big Eyes,” set in the early ’60s, salutes ham-and-cheese creativity. It tells the far-fetched but factual story of the past century’s worst artistic team.
Meet Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), a prolific, capable but tasteless creator of kids’ portraits, and her husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz), who depicts trite street scenes. We encounter young Margaret at the moment of her first divorce, zipping from her Southern home to a new, if uncertain, life in California with her beloved daughter. No wonder she was fascinated by melancholy depictions of frowning, tearful tots.
She and Walter cross paths in San Francisco, where her painter-in-the-park weekend transactions are failing until he offers to help. A self-confident wheeler-dealer, he begins as a charmer. For a long time following the couple’s Hawaiian wedding, they seem to be in a blissful union. He’s intensely encouraging of Margaret, insisting “You undervalue yourself.” His grin is so warm that his less-than-heartfelt gaze doesn’t immediately matter, a quirk that the scene-stealing Waltz has used in film after film to great effect.
It’s hard to say who paints worse, but it’s clear who’s fastest. She cranks out countless ragamuffins with pupils the size of tennis balls. Unfortunately, shy Margaret is too introverted to present her work to West Coast sophisticates. Walter, a successful real estate vendor, convinces her he should peddle the pictures as his own.
It becomes a rags-to-riches story, but slowly. Adams, in one of the best performances of her career, is a sensitive wonder, making her character utterly gentle, a bit eccentric and slightly melancholy. Soon Walter is piloting Margaret’s designs of weepy waifs to widespread popularity on canvas, posters and printed tableware. He’s invited on TV to discuss “his” art, generating a Warhol-size fan base while challenging appalled critics.
Eventually he is as domineering as the snobs he opposed, and Margaret is looking for another marriage escape plan. Cue bickering, creative clashes and an infamous lawsuit for art fraud, relationship topics that appeal hugely to the ever-gloomy Burton.
The script, by the “Ed Wood” team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, is less than groundbreaking. It delivers the facts of the matter clearly, but this time their anguished artist tale is hilarity-free. Thankfully, there’s a sweet note of humanism in the story even as it pulls the couple toward estrangement. It’s a smiler start to finish, not a howler.
Burton’s tone is agreeably low-key and humane, presenting the real-life characters as goofy without insulting them. Even the look of the film, photographed by Bruno Delbonnel, is lighter and brighter than Burton’s typical dark fantasies. Somehow not a single actor is sporting an overblown, unrealistic hairpiece, though the little Keane kids look something like the boggle-eyed invaders in his “Mars Attacks!”
“Big Eyes” isn’t the peak of Burton’s filmography, but after his recent stumbles, it’s neither sleepy nor hollow.
Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, brief strong language
Starring: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz
Directed by: Tim Burton