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Set in the time before Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem set the Women's Movement in motion, Tim Burton's Big Eyes tells a good story, but . . . we expect much bigger films from the mind of director Burton, who delivers the kind of story that we'd expect from a low budget indie. (The kind where a million dollar budget looks like forty.) Still . . .
IN SHORT: A terrific story. [Rated PG-13. 105 minutes]
All through the 1960s, when I still spelled "cranky" with a small "c," I can remember poster stores in the local malls or shopping centers selling (amidst lots of stoner stuff by Robert Crumb) posters of sad little girls with huge eyes. Also sad puppies with big eyes, some playing poker. The latter posters were, apparently, a rip-off of the work of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) by her husband Walter Keane, and their story is the tale told in Tim Burton's Big Eyes.
Before we get to that pair we start with the Margaret who, in 1958, with daughter in tow, flees a suburban marriage to resettle in San Francisco. She has dreams of being a professional painter but, aside from Georgia O'Keefe, there are none and no one in the professional art community will consider the prospect. At San Fran street fairs, for a buck or two, Margaret will do a portrait. Without too much resistance, she is engaged by another artist, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) whom she will eventually marry. Keane claims to be French educated in all things culturally important. Margaret is, despite previous actions, still submissive in the 1950s cultural stereotype and Keane can talk the talk with the best of 'em.
Art needs to be seen. Art is sold in galleries so, when a local gallery refuses to look at the work, Walter pesters nightclub owner Enrico Banducci (Jon Polito) to hang some of the paintings, to sell. Banducci puts 'em in the back of the club, next to the rest rooms. That, of course, is the one place everyone will see the art and the portraits of girls with big eyes are noticed. And they sell.
Opening a gallery across the street from one of the places that refused to look at Margaret's portfolio, Walter proves he can sell Margaret's work better than she can -- certainly better than his landscapes of la belle Paris. The catch is that Walter takes full credit as the creator of the paintings he is selling -- every one of them from the brush of Margaret. When San Francisco Examiner columnist Dick Nolan (Danny Huston) throws some attention Walter's way, the gallery becomes a cool place to be. Walter notices that the rabble would rather rip down the gallery's publicity posters, so he begins selling the things. He starts at a nickel (remember this is early 60s money -- comic books were a dime or 12 cents), then a dime or quarter. Finally, his marketing brain kicks in and the gallery starts selling posters of the work, in addition to the original art.
Instant hit. The posters sell like there's no tomorrow. Margaret cranks out new work while (essentially) locked in the basement of her apartment. Walter takes all the credit. Even the art critic for the New York Times, John Canaday (Terence Stamp), takes notice. He uses words like "kitsch" and "trash". And, of course, the money pours in.
Eventually all will crash, burn, and resurrect in ways we won't reveal, other than to say Keane's rapidly maturing daughter is the only one to realize that her mom is being ripped off by her step-dad. Then there is the religious cult . . .
Saying more takes the fun away.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Big Eyes, he would have paid . . .
At end-of-year, all films that make some part of our Best Of Lists get a standard "$9" rating. Big Eyes is a solid story and more than easy to sit through. We've seen most all of this years holiday movies. Most left us feeling as if we'd been punched in the head -- we're used to bigger films from Tim Burton but, perhaps, a simple story is enough to get a righteous amount of recognition.
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