I was intrigued when this film was first released since it seemed to have a number of things going for it: two charismatic leads (Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz), a fascinating "true" story of an art world scandal, and it was directed by Tim Burton, whose quirky worldview usually manages to divert. Anyhow we never did get around to seeing it straight away, but caught up with it recently at a repertory showing. Once again, bless the Prince Charles Cinema for their idiosyncratic programming.
Despite what I wrote above, this is the most un-Burtonesque movie of his career, at least on the surface. Not only is there no Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham-Carter, but he appears to be playing it straight in recounting the very strange relationship between the 'artist' husband-and-wife team of Walter and Margaret Keane (Waltz and Adams). The film opens with Margaret and her daughter fleeing her first marriage and landing in the 'boho' San Francisco of the late 1950s. There she finds work painting juvenile designs on baby furniture and indulges her true 'talent' of drawing portraits of the passing crowd at Sunday open-air art fairs. Her work is distinguished by large-eyed tykes who seem to be capturing all of the sadness of the soul in their mournful gaze.
She is spotted by Walter who is trying to flog his dismal Parisian street scenes, painted he tells the naïve and accepting Margaret in his dreary garret after studying at the Beaux Arts in Paris. When he proposes, she can see only a happy future together -- and with her short blonde bob Adams seems to be channelling Doris Day. Always eager to pursue a fast buck and a master of the fast line, Walter arranges for their paintings to be displayed in the corridors of a 'beat' night club. When his sorry works are ignored but hers attract some positive attention, he convinces her that they will sell better if they are thought to be the work of a male artist. She reluctantly agrees and for the next ten years churns out painting after painting behind locked doors (even lying to her daughter), while he courts acclaim and riches for 'his' haunting pictures. Always looking for commercial possibilities, he flogs hundreds of cheap posters to the all-too eager punters and grows rich and smug. Margaret is now almost a prisoner, toiling away in their lavish home. Adams forgoes any hint of glamour from her previous roles, and gallantly portrays the worn-down victim of a man whose behaviour verges on the psychotic if he doesn't get his own way.
The film was written by the same screenwriters who created Burton's "Ed Wood" and there is the same perverse fascination with Walter's larger than life character. This results in what could have been a conventional biopic of one person being dominated by another horrific OTT participant. I have no idea how true to the facts this film really is and how much is Burtonesque embroidery, but they would have us believe that Walter never actually painted anything original in his life and that he may have briefly visited Paris once upon a time...and there he is on national television telling the world how his painting was inspired by the ruins of Berlin after the war with homeless kiddies peeking through the barbed wire. For some reason this film, along with "Birdman", was considered a comedy at the recent Golden Globe awards. There is little to find amusing in Walter's misuse of his wife's talents.
When she bookends the first half of their life together by again driving away with her daughter, Walter tells her that he will only agree to a divorce if she sends him 100 original big-eyed paintings from her new home in Hawaii -- and believe it or not she begins to churn them out. It is only after being inspired by some cold-calling Jehovah's Witnesses that she seeks protection from the courts. In the trial that follows, Walter, acting as his own lawyer, produces so histrionic and unbelievable a performance -- inspired by TV's Perry Mason -- that the film seems to verge on high comedy were it not for the fact that the viewer is rooting for justice for Margaret, which she finally may receive. He may be a despicable bastard, but Waltz' performance is a master-class of high camp, even if one finds it hard to believe that he is the all-American bastard that he is meant to be.
The supporting cast of Jon Polito, Krysten Ritter, and Jason Schwarzman add little depth to the movie nor does Danny Huston as the local reporter who befriends Keane. Only Terence Stamp manages to give the film some momentum in his role of the New York Times Art Editor. who protests that these kitschy portraits are anything but real 'art'. I'm inclined to agree with him and wonder how her pictures ever became so popular, since they are little more than sentimental tosh. Then again, Andy Warhol claimed that the Keane oeuvre must be good if so many people bought them!
Burton may have given us a more conventional movie than we have come to expect from him, but he does insert the odd strange touch to remind us that he could be depicting a fairy-tale world where nothing is quite as straightforward as it seems. For example when Margaret approaches the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time, the water is ringed with non-existent palm trees and in the stressful years that follow, she often feels besieged by the same eerie big-eyed folk that she puts on canvas. The big question is when is a Tim Burton film not a Tim Burton film?