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‘Big Eyes’: Smile your way through a story of real-life madness

Let’s do something reviews almost never do. Let’s start by talking about the writers.

Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have teamed up for “Ed Wood,” “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and “Man on the Moon” (the Andy Kaufman biopic). If there’s a movie to be made about an oddball corner of the entertainment world, they’re your guys.

With “Big Eyes,” Alexander and Karaszewski have once again penned a richly entertaining screenplay brimming with sharp dialogue and memorable characters. And as was the case with “Ed Wood,” director Tim Burton takes a kitschy slice of 20th century pop culture and turns it into a special film.

This is the kind of movie that has you smiling nearly all the way throughout at the sheer inspired madness of it all. (Nearly all the way. There’s one scene in particular that’s serious and heavy and terrifying, and Burton treats it with the proper respect.)

Amy Adams strikes just the right notes as Margaret Keane, who maintains a sunny façade even when she’s leaving her first husband in the mid-1950s, when divorce was anything but commonplace; struggling to raise a daughter on her own — and later, when she’s a co-conspirator in one the longest and weirdest con jobs in the history of modern art.

Margaret created the unforgettable and some might say horrendous “Big Eyes” paintings that captivated the world and earned millions. (Most of the paintings are of waifs staring forlornly straight ahead with saucer eyes the size of baseballs. If I had one hanging on my bedroom wall, I’d never be able to go to sleep. Ever.)

But here’s the thing. It was Margaret’s second husband, the conniving slickster Walter Keane (a brilliant Christoph Waltz), who took credit for paintings the first time they were shown in public. And once the lie was created, it couldn’t be undone.

Burton fills the screen with colorful, vibrant tableaus of the San Francisco scene of the 1960s. Danny Huston is a hoot as Dick Nolan, a powerful gossip columnist who takes a liking to Walter, makes him a local celebrity and even helps Walter gain entrée into the celebrity universe. (If a big star is coming to town, Dick will tip off Walter in advance, so Walter can show up at just the right moment, bearing one of “his” paintings as a gift.)

As Walter puts it, he was Warhol before Warhol was Warhol. He mass-produces posters and postcards, aggressively marketing his work AND his larger-than-life personality. Meanwhile, Margaret becomes a near recluse, painting in a secret studio in their lavish home while Walter soaks up the spotlight and dreams up new schemes. Her only friend Dee-Ann (Krysten Ritter) is banned from the Keane’s home. Margaret and her daughter Jane (Madeleine Arthur) cling to each other as Walter becomes increasingly volatile. Finally Margaret can’t take it — and she comes out publicly, eventually taking Walter to court to prove she was the real artist.

Terrence Stamp is perfectly cast as the New York Times art critic who is appalled by what he calls “synthetic hack work,” regardless of who’s painting it. Waltz plays Walter as a man who is always in a state of con — to the point where he believes at least half his own lies. Adams gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as Margaret, who was such a dichotomous personality: so meek as to allow Walter to push her around for years, yet strong enough to have left that first marriage, to finally leave Walter — and to proclaim to the world that those famous paintings were hers.

Not to mention having the inspiration to create the works in the first place. They’re not for everyone, but they struck a chord with millions.

As eccentric as his subjects are, Burton plays things relatively straightforward. This is one of the most mainstream movies he’s ever done. It’s also one of the more entertaining movies of the year.

[s3r star=3.5/4]

The Weinstein Co. presents a film directed by Tim Burton and written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Running time: 105 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for thematic elements and brief strong language). Opens Thursday in local theaters.