Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Director Tim Burton and the story of Margaret and Walter Keane, a tale of extreme weirdness hidden under the manicured surface of two middle-class American lives, were made for each other. There’s even something Burtonesque about the Keane paintings that give the film its title, portraits of children with sad, deadpan faces and eyes so huge and flat that one of the film’s characters compares them to “big stale jellybeans.” After all, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice or Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands as Keane kids in Goth getups. But this “based on true events” tale is a Burton film without much Burton, its costumes, settings and sometimes on-the-nose dialogue all disappointingly straightforward.
When I asked Burton, in an interview for Slant Magazine, why there is so little of his usual visual flair in this film, he said he wanted to let the weirdness of the Keanes’ story speak for itself. It’s a strange story, all right, which the film insightfully, if a tad too didactically, frames as a cautionary feminist tale. In his mostly superfluous voiceover, reporter Dick Nolan (Danny Huston) announces: “The ‘50s were a grand time—if you were a man.” And so they were for Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), the man who claims credit for those big-eyed kids. Not so much for his wife Margaret (Amy Adams), who actually painted them. Gentle, naïve and easily cowed, Margaret lets Walter talk her into going along with that lie early on for the sake of selling her work. (“Unfortunately,” he says, “nobody buys lady art.”) But as the years drag on, that fiction becomes a prison for Margaret. Alone in her studio, cranking out canvases behind closed doors, her need to keep their secret distances her from everyone but her husband—even as she starts to realize just how sociopathic and delusional he is.
Burton and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel make the Keane’s glass-walled California dream house look coldly creepy, its pool casting eerie shadows on its dark walls at night. But the camerawork and direction are generally as literal-minded as the script, which is more interested in establishing the central facts of Margaret’s story than in plumbing her inner life. Huston’s narrator has a florid, self-satisfied delivery that brings to mind Addison DeWitt in All About Eve. In a more typical Burton film, that broad acting style might have fit right in, but here it just highlights the insistent ordinariness of the rest of the film.
Written for the L Magazine