Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes,” a portrait of real-life artists Margaret and Walter Keane, who specialized in creepy but cute paintings of saucer-eyed children and kittens, marks the first time Burton has returned to the real world since “Ed Wood” (1994). Yet while “Big Eyes” is as much an ode to kitsch as “Ed Wood” was, it’s also just as much a vampire comedy as his last flick, “Dark Shadows.” However, the vampire in this film — Margaret’s fame-claiming husband Walter — sucks talent and soul, not blood, and he’s a lot less amusing as the film goes on.

Working off a well-polished script by the screenwriters of “Ed Wood” and “Man On the Moon,” Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Burton takes us to San Francisco’s beatnik haven, North Beach, at the tail end of the 1950s, where recent divorcee Margaret (Amy Adams) has moved to with her daughter to pursue her art. There she meets Walter (Christoph Waltz), a fellow painter who’s as tirelessly outgoing as she is withdrawn. They marry quickly, and Walter starts taking their work around to North Beach jazz bars to sell, only to find that her bizarre big-eyed work is far more popular than his mundane Parisian landscapes.

Inspired by jealousy as much as on-the-spot salesmanship, he smoothly takes credit for Margaret’s art — a move that shocks her when she finds out about it. She acquiesces, though, partly to avoid conflict with her husband, and partly because she senses he’s better at hyping her work. (And Burton is saying something here about the devil’s pact between creativity and marketing, reinforced later by a shot of Keane prints being sold between cans of Campbell’s soup and creamed corn at a supermarket.)

Big Eyes
Director Tim Burton
Run Time 106 minutes
Language English
Opens now showing

As the Keanes’ fame grows, so does the lie, and things finally come to a head when Walter demands Margaret produce his “defining statement,” and the drama heads toward a big courtroom showdown over who actually produced the work, with a climax too absurd to believe except for the fact it really happened.

Christoph Waltz as Walter wields a smarmy grin and lugubrious chuckle with an intensity that is smothering, his sense of self-importance more puffed up than a cane toad surrounded by meat ants. It almost seems over-the-top, but Margaret Keane herself — speaking to The Guardian — said her reaction to the film was “traumatic. Christoph Waltz, he looks like Walter, sounds like him, acts like him. It was very accurate.” Amy Adams has already scored a Golden Globe for her work here as mousy Margaret, which is way more understated than your usual award winners, but moves slowly from smothered dignity and helpless accommodation to a quiet but firm discovery of inner strength.

“Big Eyes” sees Burton moving in some fresh directions, and — at last — beyond his symbiotic relationship with an increasingly hammy Johnny Depp. It’s definitely the most grown-up film Burton has made since “Ed Wood,” and it also feels like his most personal; clearly he’s someone who knows about the tensions within a creative relationship.

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