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Big Eyes — film review
From the Financial Times of Tue, 23 Dec 2014 15:59:48 GMT
Big Eyes

Amy Adams stars as Margaret Keane

Cast an actor against type and you can obtain marvels. Random canonic paradigm: Vivien Leigh, a porcelain English beauty flung into Oscar triumph as a passion-tossed American southern belle. (Two Oscars if you add Streetcar to Gone with the Wind). Cast a director against type and that too can pay dividends. Tim Burton, gothic whimsy virtuoso, surely isn’t the man to make Big Eyes, the truth-based story of a 50-year-old courtroom cause célèbre scripted by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, best known as the verismo vendors of The People Vs Larry Flynt. Or is he?

Quick answer: yes, though in early scenes he tests our readiness for challenges. Is that really Amy Adams antiqued with a Doris Day hairdo and 1950s polo-neck sweater as Sunday painter Margaret soon-to-be Keane? She is swept into marriage — and with it a de facto management deal — by Christoph Waltz’s Walter, a scoundrel-charmer with a neo-Cartesian philosophy: I think, therefore I scam. He sees that her trashy-cute images of big-eyed, dark-eyed waifs have commercial potential. So he starts signing them himself – “Walter Keane” – and selling them himself.

Taking over her game and potential fame, he becomes a spousal abuser by intimidation. It’s Gaslight by daylight. Or in Doris Day World, Midnight Lace by the pale noon beams of the studio window. Margaret paints day after day in a ground-floor garret locked against the prying, including their daughter. Meanwhile Walter, with the perverse loyalty of the appropriator, retaliates against the jeerers, led by art critic Terence Stamp. To Stamp’s “lowest-common- denominator kitsch” he bites back: “What’s wrong with ‘lowest common denominator’? It’s what this country is built on.”

Waltz and Adams are both terric. He, a Svengali sometimes oleaginous, sometimes manic. She, a child-woman dimpled with ingenuous wonder at life’s surprises, nice and nefarious.

In mid-movie I remembered too — assailed as if by a Tim Burton flashback — that Alexander/Karaszewski were not the Burton virgins I had thought. Long ago they scripted Ed Wood, setting form and precedent for this film’s frisked-from-history blend of 20th-century innocence and predation. In the 1994 film a naïvely gifted movie director consorted with Dracula actors, clairvoyants, freak-show fugitives. Here a simple-hearted artist of the people is bloodsucked by a talent vampire seeing the future in dollar signs.

Set in San Francisco, Big Eyes has a gorgeous nacreous light — as if French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel has found a muse in that other tale of imposture in the Golden Gate city, Vertigo — and a mischievous skill at strewing suspense through a story some of us may know already, along with its weirder-than-fiction courtroom denouement.

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