I bought this movie a while ago and not looking too closely when I put it on over the weekend I had it in mind that it was a Coen brothers film, rather, it is courtesy of Tim Burton; either way we sat down expecting something a little different. We had to sit back and think when was the last live-action (relatively mainstream and not involving too many dead people) movie Burton made, it has been a while and all compare to what I consider an under-appreciated classic; Big Fish (2003).
The story is based on the life of the artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams, American Hustle, 2013) who leaving a destructive marriage sets off to the San Francisco bay area where she tries to get by with the help of friends such as DeeAnn (Krysten Ritter, Search Party, 2014) selling her existing paintings and sketching people without much success. Then one day while she and her daughter were selling her work at a flea-market they are met by the charismatic Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz, Carnage 2011). Keane recognises a certain something in her works, while he essentially discards his own works of Parisian Street scenes. As their relationship develops he takes the opportunity to sell her work along-side his at a jazz club. By this stage they have married (rather quickly) As they are married, both sign their works “Keane” and pretty soon people start to take notice of the works, with the Big Eyes paintings selling at the expense of his.
Walter had always sold himself as an artist, who having had a career, gave it up and became an artist living in Paris, and so now his speciality is Parisian street scenes.
Rather than tell the world that they are his wife’s (“women’s work does not sell”) he passes them off as his own. When Margaret finds out about this she is not too happy but he convinces her to go along with it. As it happens Walter is a superb sales man and engineers the sales of her works (as his) . the works take off and to the world Amy does not paint, it is Walter. As the years progress and they become more successful, the pressure builds with Amy. What does not help is Walter’s engineering of sales and publicity opportunities ably assisted by his gossip-columnist friend Dick Nolan (Danny Huston, Masters of Sex, Dr. Douglas Greathouse, 2014) . Walter is a celebrity and uses his celebrity status to further advance the sales of their/his works. Amy eventually feeling the frustration starts to paint in a new style so that she can be seen in public as an artist, but these works are not as successful, partly because she is not as good a sales person.
As they progress with the big-eyes works, with the gallery and image licencing rights bringing in the money, the edges start to fray around Walter’s grand deception. He needs to bring out a coffee book, but for that he needs a back story. And so was born the fiction of the starving children in 1949 Berlin with their big sad eyes. His art is not without his detractors, none more so than John Canady (Terrance Stamp, Valkyrie, 2008) who has been a strident critic of the works form the start – they are not proper art in his view. This comes to a head when Walter promises a large work to the UN for their stand at the New York World’s Fair. This of course has to be painted by Margaret, much against her wishes. Just as his professional career is coming to a head so is his home life.
Canady, learning that the painting for the Un is about to be exhibited, gets a preview. Upon seeing the work he writes a critique of it which totally destroys it. The picture is later removed from view. Alongside this is Margaret’s growing unease at keeping her talent a secret from everybody, but then she makes a discovery – Walter has been faking even his own paintings for years, he has been buying landscapes from a particular artist in Paris for years, then painting his name over the original artist’s name, Margaret discovered a crate of the originals, that of course sparked the great reveal.
Having had enough, Margaret and daughter run away to Hawaii and begin to make a new life for themselves. Trying for a divorce Walter makes it clear that if she tried to divorce him on terms other than his own (he keeps the rights and she has to present him with 100 more paintings), he will reveal she was part of the fraud by letting him sell the paintings.
Finally having enough she sues Walter and his media supporters, arriving to court Walter is certain he is going to win, given his media company backing, however they quickly remove themselves once they are cleared of any defamation on their side. What follows is Walter’s attempt to use is show-boating to sway the court, the judge is having none of it and orders certain activities to determine who the real artist is…
A very engaging, funny and at time poignant movie, it is well worth watching and enjoying, and other reason why Tim Burton is in a class of his own. 8/10