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'Big Eyes': Pay no attention to that wife behind the canvas

'With your big eyes and your big lies . . . ," Lana Del Rey purrs over the end titles of Tim Burton's Big Eyes.

Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams are Walter and Margaret Keane in "Big Eyes." (The Weinstein Company)
Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams are Walter and Margaret Keane in "Big Eyes." (The Weinstein Company)Read more

'With your big eyes and your big lies . . . ," Lana Del Rey purrs over the end titles of Tim Burton's Big Eyes.

It's a sultry, albeit hardly subtle coda to a wondrously strange true story about art and heartbreak, intellectual property theft, and the subjugation of women. Specifically, the subjugation of one Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) by husband Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), who in the 1960s claimed his wife's paintings of saucer-eyed waifs as his own.

Signed simply "Keane" (often followed by a copyright symbol) on canvases with which he had nothing to do, Walter bustled around the Bay Area of the Beat Era hawking the art in cafes and galleries. (Historically accurate visual pun: one of the nightspots to showcase the portraits is the Hungry i.)

The brightly colored images of crying children, woeful felines, canines, and clowns found a receptive audience. Suddenly, Keane was famous. And feverishly entrepreneurial: selling the originals as well as posters, prints, cards and coffee-table books, and landing commissions from Joan Crawford, Natalie Wood, celebrities by the score. Then he would make Margaret, cloistered in her studio like some Grimm Brothers fairy-tale unfortunate, paint them.

Could Margaret, who had fled her oppressive first husband and was trying bravely to raise a daughter on her own when she met the chatty, charming Walter, find the strength to affirm what was rightfully hers? Or would she continue to be quietly complicit in this brazen sham?

And how cool are all those mid-century clothes, cars, and gewgaws? In Big Eyes, a celebration of kitsch and '60s pop culture, Burton - he of Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood - has found the subject of his dreams.

In fact, Big Eyes is scripted by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who collaborated with Burton on the biopic of the famously awful filmmaker played by Johnny Depp in Ed Wood. There's more tenderness in Big Eyes, and a playfully framed but nonetheless emphatic you-go-girl spirit to the proceedings, as we watch Margaret - a magnificent Adams - slowly emerge from her shell.

Although I found myself here and there wondering who else could have played Walter, Austrian Oscar-winner Waltz brings the right amount of unctuous self-delusion to the role. What kind of person shamelessly steals from his wife, creating elaborate backstories for the art's origins and inspiration?

In a way, Keane was an artist: an accomplished con artist, a pathological liar who deeply believed his own fictions. And there is, for a time, something endearing about him, a hustler who befriends a newspaper columnist (Danny Huston), defies the art establishment (Jason Schwartzman as a high-minded gallerist and Terence Stamp as John Canaday, the New York Times' art critic), and soldiers on.

Burton's Big Eyes begins with an epigram from Andy Warhol (who else?): "I think what Keane has done is just terrific. It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn't like it."

Warhol was talking about Walter - who he, like everyone else in the mid-1960s, believed was responsible for the paintings.

But Margaret has finally been able to put that lie to bed. In Big Eyes, as in life, she emerges from her locked room, paint-spattered, the truth revealed.