Movie review: Four stars for Amy Adams' Big Eyes

Christoph Waltz (far left, with Danny Huston) dials up the showmanship and vulnerability that add to the charm of his character in Big Eyes.
Christoph Waltz (far left, with Danny Huston) dials up the showmanship and vulnerability that add to the charm of his character in Big Eyes.PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

Big Eyes scores with its portrait of a marriage in which a manipulative artist takes credit for his wife's artworks

Review Biopic

BIG EYES (PG13)

106 minutes/Opens tomorrow/****

The story: Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) flees an abusive husband and lands in beatnik-era San Francisco, where she meets another struggling artist, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz). They marry and Walter discovers that his wife's art, featuring children with oversized saucer eyes, sells better than his. He takes credit for her paintings, telling her that no one will take a female artist seriously. Based on a true story.

This is director Tim Burton doing away with nearly everything that makes him Tim Burton.

The maker of Frankenweenie (2012), Alice In Wonderland (2010) and Corpse Bride (2005) shelves his creepy-cute stylistic trademarks in favour of exploring the fascinating options offered by the story.

The film starts as a telling of the American Dream and, along the way, picks up elements of a romance, after Margaret (Adams) and Walter (Waltz) meet, and the domestic tensions that result from Walter's continued insults to his wife.

But the movie comes alive outside the family home, in the gentle ribbing of the pretensions in the art gallery scene, personified by Jason Schwartzman, playing gallery owner Ruben, aghast at Keane kitsch taking over the living rooms of America.

Burton is a collector of Keane art and this movie is something of a personal project, but he is above mocking the way the paintings were commodified and popularised by the indefatigable showman Walter and his cohorts.

In the hands of actor Waltz and Burton, the manipulative Walter is only fleetingly shown to be a monster. The audience gets the full blast of showmanship and self-hating vulnerability and all of it adds to his charm. He, for all his flaws, is a truly likeable character.

As Margaret, Adams has to show her constantly probing the limits of her autonomy, even as Walter has her under his control in his capacity as business manager and husband. That match of wits - her pushing, him reining her in - offers truths not just of their marriage, but also in all sexual relationships in which there is an imbalance of power.

Adams picked up a Best Actress (Musical or Comedy) Golden Globe for her work here, but her supporting castmates deserve a mention. Jon Polito (as jazz club owner Enrico Banducci) and Danny Huston (as hack journalist Dick Nolan) are loveable hucksters who turbocharge the film's energy levels.

Burton probably knew that the film's period look and the arch, gently satirical tone recall the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), which is why he had the same cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel, come on board. A good move: It does not seem possible, but Delbonnel makes the 1950s California that we know from the movies seem even cooler.

johnlui@sph.com.sg