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Big Eyes

Plot Overview

The camera comes in on a stylized big eye until it's pixelated, then draws back and a tear forms below it. A printing press runs like mad, and we get a closeup of a picture to see it signed:  © Keane . The plot revs up right away.

Northern California, 1958. A narrator tells us, “The 1950s were a grand time … if you were a man.” A woman does the unthink­able: “Margaret walked out on her husband.” She drives to North Beach, S.F. and connects with her best friend Dee-Ann (Krysten Ritter.) “All she had was her paintings in the trunk and her daughter in the back seat,” the narrator tells us. (“Good luck.”)

While publicly displaying her art Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) meets a charmer (“He's diddled every skirt in the arts department”) Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz.) They flirt (“My husband and I are separated.”) They start to date (“I haven't been on a date in a long time.”) Margaret paints decorations on cribs for a furniture company, and Walter is in commercial real estate and is a “Sunday painter.”

They begin to get intimate. Margaret gets some bad news: “Frank wants to take Jane away.” He thinks that raising her is “beyond my capabilities as a single mother.” Walter proposes and Margaret accepts (“I am a divorcee with a child. Walter's a blessing.”) They honey­moon in Hawaii.

Walter an aspiring artist himself displays his Parisian cityscapes in a jazz night club, with some of his wife's big-eyed portraiture mixed in. Someone buys one of the latter thinking Walter was the artist (“It was a misunder­standing and I didn't want to jinx the sale.”) Through some fortuitous publicity the Keane paintings start making a bundle, and the Keanes keep up the ruse figuring “lady art” wouldn't be so lucrative. But Margaret is troubled (“I lied to my child.”)

She goes to confession even though she was brought up Methodist, not Catholic, and the priest gives her the general Christian advice: “Your husband is trying to make the best of a difficult situation. The man is the head of the house­hold. Perhaps you should trust his judgment.” She herself was in a difficult position. As a divorcee from her first husband she could have kept her paintings credited to herself but not custody of her young daughter Jane (Delaney Raye). Married to scheming Keane she's well off and fit for custody of Jane, but she doesn't get recognition for her big-eyed paintings.

After about ten years, when Jane (Madeleine Arthur) reaches her majority, or is about to, Margaret leaves her second husband with whom she had a falling out and returns to Hawaii where she falls in with the Jehovah's Witnesses who are “fanatics” about truthfulness … as they are about not celebrating Christmas, not saluting the flag, and not going to the prom. Divorced from Walter now, she sues him for slander, and Walter defending him­self in Federal District Court shows he's as adept at lawyering as he is at painting.


“Big Eyes” seems to be illustrating two verses from a neglected book of the Bible: (Eccl. 4:13-14) “Better is a poor and a wise child than an old and foolish king, who will no more be admonished. For out of prison he cometh to reign; whereas also he that is born in his kingdom becometh poor.” Jane is poor in friends, first because her mom would never allow any to be invited over for fear of discovery of her secret, and then having to start making new friends in Hawaii with her being from the main­land. She shows her­self wise in figuring out what is going on (“I know”) and not being too choosey in her friends so as to be able to socialize. Walter is king of his house­hold for sure, but his dominance in claiming author­ship of the portraits went way beyond its time as “lady art” became more accept­able and there was no longer any reason to milk it for all it's worth to main­tain custody of a girl who became of age. Walter maintains his claims to the end of his days no matter what. Comparing these two characters we see that indeed the wise child who suffered poverty in friend­ships because of what she had to go through is better than the old and foolish, rigid king of the house who came out of confine­ment in commercial real estate to rule in the art world.

That in itself would be but a curious application of scripture, but the movie takes it to a new level when it moves from big eyes to big Bibles. The ones the Jehovah's Witnesses carry are normal size held in a hand, but the one Walter swears on in court takes the bailiff two hands to hold. If we're permitted to use a common metaphor where the writer stands for his writing—we say, ‘I like Dickens’ when we mean we like his works—, then Eccl. 4:13-14 is directly applic­able to Bible trans­lation. Old manu­scripts come out of their imprison­ment in monasteries or libraries or "junk drawers" to dominate the modern trans­lations, while the good native English words of the reliable King James Version (KJV) gradually become poor in currency. But they're as wise as ever, just not as prevalent in current usage. English being such a poly­glot language having a glut of new words with different shades of meaning entering it through the centuries, aged expressions are prone to unintended foolish phrasing, but the confidence of modern trans­lations based on the oldest manuscripts (of some­times dubious value) remains unshaken.

The verses the Jehovah's Witnesses quote from their New World Translation are, 2Tim. 3:1-2 that in the last days “critical times” shall come, for men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, etc. “Sounds like my ex-husband,” exclaims Margaret. By critical times the trans­lators likely meant times that are approaching a state of crisis, and they would be right. How­ever, the movie gives a lot of footage to John Canaday (Terence Stamp), a senior art critic at the New York Times, who described Keane's big-eyed exhibit at the World's Fair as “an infinity of kitsch.” From the context “critical Times” sounds like a bad news­paper review. The KJV says, “perilous times,” a more apt description of Margaret's husband turned into a mad fire­bug, although the word peril from early English is not favored so much in current speech.

The judge (James Saito) at the trial stopped Margaret and Walter from “going at it” as witnesses, because the court with its backlogged docket didn't have the time, and neither do we Christians with work to do have time to argue out our favorite Bible versions. Instead, the judge had them both paint pictures on the spot—they didn't have to be master­pieces—for the jury to judge. Similarly, in our group Bible studies, if we were to cite two or three of our favorite versions for each verse we cover, as the early church did with its different prophets, (1Cor. 14:29) “Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge,” we can figure out what we're reading and not get bogged down.

The Jehovah's Witnesses not being big on Christmas couldn't see to letting her give her husband the artistic credit as a gift, they wanted the truth above all else. They also don't salute the flag. With some of the leaders we have who can blame them? (Prov. 29:2) “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn.” An example of mourning over a wicked ruler is, (Esther 4:3) “And in every province, whither­soever the king's commandment and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, and fasting, and weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sack­cloth and ashes.” Other possible renderings for “the people mourn” could be the people fast or weep or wail. How­ever, wail is what I associate with a crowd cheering on its favored foot­ball team. For that matter, “Jump, Jive, an' Wail” is the title of a rock song, and I don't think we should be looking to party when we get a wicked ruler. The New American Standard Version says “the people moan” when they get a wicked ruler. For that matter moaning is what people do when they have an ecstatic sexual experience. For example, from Michael Olson: “She struggles against the leather restraining straps and whimpers. I recognize the contraption from a James Bond film. It's a vile garrote, beloved as an execution device by the Spanish up to the end of General Franco's reign. … Her breathing is labored, and as the thing presses harder, she starts to moan with progressively more erotic energy” (46). I think we need other version(s) besides the NASV to round out our understanding.

The third thing the movie says the Jehovah's Witnesses don't do is go to the prom. For that matter they don't court or marry any­one outside their own little group. The KJV says (of a widow), (1Cor. 7:39) “if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.” To go about marrying—or doing any­thing—“only in the Lord” probably requires some situational inter­pretation, but the NIV paraphrases it to say she can marry any man she pleases, “but he must belong to the Lord,” while the J.B. Phillips version paraphrases it to say, “but let her be guided by the Lord.” In some cases marrying a non-Christian may be a viable option in the Lord, even a preferable one. And some­times misguidance should not be too heavily relied upon.

With all these modern versions saying so many potentially foolish things, we should make them open to comparison with each other in our Bible studies, and not condemn the reliable KJV simply because its vocabulary is poorly represented in modern usage.

Production Values

“Big Eyes” (2014) was directed by Tim Burton. The screenplay was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. While it was loosely based on true events the writers/director took liberties with them so much that it looks like they only considered one side, and then they embellished it with their own imaginations. From what I've been able to gather, the real Walter Keane was an artiste, but the movie Walter Keane a poseur. The one in the movie had an idée fixe, the one in real life bursitis. In real life Margaret was a protégée of Walter working in corroboration with him on the big eyes drawings that were his brain­child, but she was able to touch them up from her furniture painting expertise. She did get credit for her own work that she did. Walter never lost his intellectual rights to the big eye franchise. Margaret won a case against him for defamation, but it was over­turned on appeal. They finally, amicably agreed not to sue each other any more.

The movie stars Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. Christoph Waltz's per­for­mance was out­standing, but his strong character upstaged Adams who's a good actress but in a sub­dued role. MPAA rated it PG–13 for thematic elements and brief strong language. Lana Del Rey's music borders on being jarring, but Danny Elfman's splendid score rescues the sound quality. Visually it's impressive, but with the exception of Walter, the characters are under­developed and the story remains on the surface.

Review Conclusion w/ Christian Recommendation

I was put off by its historical inaccuracy, but I liked the story itself and feel it has some relevance, to literature as well as to art and human relations. There are a lot of places it didn't go, but it did garner sympathy for the girl Jane and disaffection for the louse Walter. Margaret seemed to be a woman who made poor decisions about men (and maybe about religion), just doing the best with what she had. Over­all it was a positive experience for me, but I advise my reader to weigh what he wants out of it and decide accordingly.

Movie Ratings

Action factor: Decent action scenes. Suitability for Children: Suitable for children 13+ years. Special effects: Well done special effects. Video Occasion: Fit For a Friday Evening. Suspense: A few suspenseful moments. Overall product rating: Four stars out of five.

Works Cited

Unless otherwise noted scripture was quoted from the King James Version. Pub. 1611, rev. 1769. Software. As indicated: From the (assumed) New World Translation by my movie notes. From the New American Standard Version by memory. From the New International Version by memory. From the J.B. Phillips translation by memory.

Olson, Michael. Strange Flesh. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012. Print.