Think of this as “the beauty and the buffoon,” a potentially-intriguing story in which Tim Burton’s direction and Christoph Waltz’s performance force Amy Adams to act against a cartoonish character. The result is a husband-wife relationship that lacks chemistry in a movie that lacks heart and human dimension; it’s a based-on-true-events story in a sun-bleached landscape told in a heavy-handed way that never delivers more than superficial entertainment value. It’s 1958 and Margaret (Adams) is struggling in San Francisco, painting children with “big eyes.” Her soon-to-be husband Walter (Waltz) is a “Sunday painter;” his real talent is in sales and marketing. Convinced “there is no market for women painters,” he begins marketing her work as his own — and he’s a genius at it. Of course it’s kitsch, but he makes it widely recognized and very popular. And yet, she’s torn: his lies are making them rich but they’re trapping her in their web. Her talent is personal and she wants personal credit for it. We know where this is headed and it goes there.
And in the end, Walter may have been treated fairly for his lies; but he’s definitely treated unjustly by Tim Burton and those who wrote this movie. They never give us a chance to see Walter as a real person. Waltz is always leering, gesturing, pontificating, over-acting; this is a hokey, ham-fisted performance. Adams is thoughtful, tearful, and worrying, but she has no inner life, no depth. She is a painting machine, not a real woman. She’s trapped in a relationship where her husband is a caricature, so we never see the life or the love in their marriage; we never understand her attraction for Walter as a real man. Worst of all, neither she nor Burton understands his real talent and the enormous value he brought to the signature, “Keane” on a painting. She was sketching children’s portraits in the park for a buck before she met him; she was selling paintings for thousands of dollars afterwards. The difference was not just her talent – it was his. And Burton won’t let us appreciate that.