Remember those popular Big Eyes paintings from the 60’s? Did you know about the story of art forgery behind it? Some of you will first think that the film Big Eyes is about art. As true as that is, it’s also a drama about art forgery and the ones caught in the middle. This is especially of intrigue to those who remember the ‘big eyes’ paintings from the 60’s.
The film begins with Margaret Ulbrich arriving in San Francisco with her daughter. She has recently divorced her husband and is hoping to make it as an artist. Art is not only her best skill but it’s her one and only skill in terms of employability. At first she’s hired by a furniture factory to paint drawings on children’s furniture. She does drawings of caricatures in a San Francisco market to make extra change.
Soon she catches the attention of a successful ‘artist’ by the name of Walter Keane. He’s impressed with her ‘big eyes’ caricatures she draws. They’re based off the wide eyes of her daughter Jane and Margaret even says that children’s eyes are the windows to their souls. Walter promises Margaret that he can make her art famous. He’s a good salesman as he knows how to sell real estate and his own art: painting of Paris where he claims to have been inspired by the city even though spending a mere week in it. She agrees and the two marry.
This comes as a welcome relief for Margaret as she is threatened to lose custody of Jane because she can’t afford to care for her. This is also a relief for Walter as his paintings of Paris are declining in sales. Soon Walter promotes the big eyes paintings at restaurants. He’s even willing to create phony brawls to stimulate news hype. Whatever he does, it works and the big eyes painting are catching a ton of renown.
However the secret of the success is exposed to Margaret and it’s ugly. Walter is claiming the paintings as his own. As the paintings become more popular and Walter becomes more famous, they become more and more in demand. That leads Walter to keep Amy in a hidden room where she’s to paint all the portraits. She’s practically exiled away from everyone including friends and her own daughter. Further friction grows when Margaret learns the truth about the Paris paintings. They were actually painted by an artist going by S. Cenic. Somehow Walter is able to talk his way out of it.
The real turning point is when the giant painting of a crowd of big-eyed children to be displayed at a pavilion during Expo 1964 is dissed by art critic John Canaday as ‘appalling.’ Keane can’t take it. He tries to stab Canaday but fails. He tried locking Margaret and Jane in a closet and setting it ablaze. Fortunately they escape and find a new life for themselves in Hawaii. However it’s after a visit from two Jehovah’s Witnesses that Margaret is prompted to bring Walter to justice. The trial goes with Walter playing his own attorney and doing a big song and dance for the jury but there comes the moment of truth. The film ends rather conventionally but will leave the audience satisfied justice was done.
One thing we should not forget is that art forgery is nothing new. There have been imposters claiming paintings and other works of art in the past. However this makes for an intriguing story. There are many elements why one would consider this intriguing. One would be people who remember the big eyes painting and still like them to this day. Another would be because of the conniving nature of Walter who knows how to get his way until the score is finally settled. I’m sure there’s something many people can find intriguing with the film to want to see it.
However the film doesn’t make itself too clear about what it is primarily all about. I do give the film credit for showing a story of art forgery and both the artist and scammer. I do give credit for showcasing the thriving and influential San Francisco art scene form the 50’s and 60’s. I also give the film credit about showing just how much of a conniver Walter Keane was to the point he felt he could kill a critic and even connive a judge in the court of law. And I especially give the film credit for showing the mother-daughter relationship involved with the story. In fact that was one of my favorite parts of the film where after Margaret left Walter, Margaret became a typical mother again and Jane became a typical daughter again. However it does leave one to wonder if it was mostly to do about the art or to do about the forgery behind it? It’s very possible to balance those two elements out appropriately on film but I just wonder if it was balanced out right.
Amy Adams did a very good job of portraying Margaret Keane. However I’ve seen better acting performances from her in the past. Christoph Waltz was also very good as the conniving Walter Keane. He succeeds at making you hate Walter and get annoyed with him. However there are times in which I think his role of Walter is a bit too close to his Oscar-winning roles of Hans Landa and King Schultz. Danny Huston also did well in the role of Dick Nolan. However it does seem odd how the narrator of all that’s happening gets so little screen time. There were additional good performances in minor roles from Terence Stamp and Jason Schwartzman.
Tim Burton did a good job of directing a film that doesn’t seem too much like your typical Tim Burton film. Interesting fact is that Burton owns two of Keane’s paintings.
Scriptwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski did a good job with the script even though it lacked consistency and focus. The set designers and costumers did a very good job in setting the scenes to the time of the film. And the score by Danny Elfman also fit the movie well.
Big Eyes is an intriguing look at the artist, the art and the forgery behind it. Even though the story was a bit off in terms of focus to its central theme, it does keep one interested.
“My name is Jordan Belfort. The year I turned 26 as the head of my own brokerage firm, I made 49 million dollars, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week.”
“Let me tell you something. There’s no nobility in poverty. I’ve been a poor man, and I’ve been a rich man. And I choose rich every fucking time.”
I was curious about Martin Scorsese’s latest film The Wolf Of Wall Street. I was wondering if it was something Martin’s never done before or just simply a great movie to have out at the time.
The film is a semi-biographical picture of Jordan Belfort, Wall Street scammer extraordinaire. At the start of 1987, Jordan is just a rookie in the stock-broking business who manages to come through and successfully woo clients. He even wins the appeal of his boss who tells him during a dinner that a lifestyle of casual sex and cocaine will help him succeed. However Black Monday happens and the business collapses, leaving Belfort unemployed. While looking for work, his first wife Teresa recommends he work for a small boiler room office that invests in penny stock. He agrees and the rest…is infamy.
That penny stock job pays off for Belfort as his aggressive style of selling earns him top sales and a higher commission rate than at his former Wall Street job. That inspires him to start his own business. It’s starts rather humbly first with furniture salesman Donnie Azoff who lives in the same building as him, along with his accountant parents and several friends of his, three of which were experienced marijuana dealers. He forms Stratton Oakmont, a penny stock company with a professional-sounding name. The business however is fueled by ‘pump and dump’ scamming promoted by Belfort. The business is so successful, it lands Belfort in a Forbes magazine article of him titled ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’ and soon attracts hundreds of financers who are ‘young, hungry and stupid.’
The business skyrockets and every successful salesperson benefits with bonuses and privileges. Belfort however benefits the most with big-time pay. With it however came the lavish lifestyle of parties, sex and drugs where Belfort frequents prostitutes and becomes addicted to cocaine and Quaaludes. His excess even leads to the end of his marriage with Teresa as she catches him having sex with Naomi LaPaglia, an attendee at one of his parties whom Belfort eventually marries after the divorce and gives birth to their daughter Skylar months later.
Meanwhile the FBI get suspicious and it prompts agent Patrick Denham to begin investigation of Stratton Oakmont and include the Securities and Exchange Commission in on it. While Belfort doesn’t know what the FBI is doing, he even opens a Swiss bank account to evade being taxed for the $22 million deal made with Steve Madden Ltd. and uses Naomi’s wealthy aunt’s name to disguise it. He even uses friends with European passports to smuggle in cash to the account. However there were some close calls to that scheme when the participation of Donnie and friend Brad would get into fights.
Belfort does sense the FBI is on his case, especially after Denham meets with him personally in his yacht. He hires his own private investigator Bo Dietl to stay one step ahead of the law. But there are soon giveaways, like the time Donnie made a phone call to the Swiss Bank associate from a wire Jordan knew was tapped. He tried to stop him but the seemingly-weak Quaaludes given by Donnie suddenly kick in. By the time he tries to stop Donnie, Donnie himself his high on the Quaaludes during the phone call and is choking on a ham sandwich. Fortunately through a sniff of cocaine, Jordan is able to save Donnie’s life. Nevertheless it doesn’t take away from the threat of legal enforcement. It gets to the point even Jordan’s father is pressuring him to step down. Jordan refuses and the whole office cheers on the rebellion from Belfort and Donnie to the FBI’s subpoenas.
It’s not long before Jordan gets signs that his luck is about to run out. The first big sign came on a yacht trip with Donnie and their wives in Italy. They’re given the news that Naomi’s wealthy aunt has died of a heart attack. Jordan decides to sail to Monaco to avoid capture along the way to Switzerland for the bank accounts but a violent storm sinks the ship. All survive but the rescue plane sent to take them to Geneva for the accounts explodes. This causes Jordan to decide break free from drugs.
Eventually the FBI do crack down on Jordan, while filming an infomercial. The Swiss banker, who was arrested in Florida over an unrelated charge, tells the FBI everything about Belfort. The evidence against Belfort is overwhelming but Belfort decides to cooperate by giving the FBI information about his colleagues in exchange for leniency. Jordan’s optimism over the possibility of leniency starts to run out as his wife decides to divorce him with full custody of their children. Jordan reacts angrily, even abusively, and attempts unsuccessfully to abscond with his daughter while high on cocaine behind the wheel. Any hope of leniency all ends when Jordan interrogates Donnie, warning him in a piece of paper about the wire. Agent Denham finds out about it and it’s the end for Jordan’s freedom and Stratton Oakmont. However after his three years in prison, Jordan has found a new life…hosting seminars on sales techniques.
Looking back, I don’t think Martin Scorsese was trying to reflect on too much of a current theme in his movie. I feel he was trying to tell the story of Jordan Belfort most of the time. Often it would come across as another example of the American Dream gone wrong or how it’s often mistaken as the quest to be the richest. Nevertheless the narration from Leonardo as Jordan does give a reflection of our business society. Many of the quotes Jordan and others say are reflections of the drive of the business world and sometimes a reflection of how many in the business world often are oblivious to the difference between their own greed and personal drive and ambition to be #1.
Another reflection Martin was probably trying to show was how being at the top of the game in the United States is like living in a jungle. The office of Stratton Oakmont did come across as a wild jungle in the corporate wilderness known as Wall Street. All the workers who wanted to excel came across as the vicious ferocious animals with a false sense of invincibility, especially Jordan. Sometimes you’re left thinking the business world is so vicious, one has to make a wild animal of themselves to excel. Is it worth it?
If there are any core themes of this movie, I believe it would have to be about lust and addiction. Right as a young investor when he gets the advice from his boss about a steady habit of sex and drugs, it already set the stage. Jordan became addicted to sex with his wives and other women. Jordan also made a steady habit of drugs to make him excel in the business world only to end up addicted to them. However it appears that the biggest drug in Jordan’s life had to be the money. Working in the stock market, Jordan gets the popular first-hand feel that ‘more is never enough.’ Money gave him that sense of power and invincibility one can get from a steroid. It also made him a slave to his habits and act out of control like any other addictive drug. “We were making more money than we knew what to do with it,” Jordan says. Eventually it would hurt him and everyone else around him in the end.
There was a lot of talk about all the elements Martin included in a film like this like over-the-top swearing, sex and drug use. Even with the violence being rather tame for a Scorsese film, there was question of that too. One thing I have to say is that my expectations in film have changed quite a bit since I was a Generation-Xer of the 90’s. I know I first talked about my Generation X attitude towards entertainment back then in my review of Django Unchained. Back then I had the common attitude that the arts should push envelopes and was convinces that the best artists or best works of arts challenged the status quo of their times. I’ve changed since then and even though I like envelope pushing, I don’t believe it should make compromise for entertainment value or showbiz expectations. Yeah, don’t let being an artist get in the way of doing your job in this biz.
Getting back to the content, I came to the movie with the full knowledge of the 500+ f-words and all kinds of raunch and obnoxiousness anticipated for it. So I went with the attitude: “If you’re going to have this many F-words and all sorts of over-the-top stuff, you better justify it.” I wouldn’t approve of censorship but I would question a lot of what happened in those offices. Was it really loaded with foul language and flipping the tweeter at everyone including the boss? Was there really sex on the workfloor? Or a monkey in the office? Or a marching band one day? Did Donnie really pee on his subpoena on his desk for all the office to see and cheer on? Did a female worker really volunteer to have her head shaved if the team hit a target? I find that hard to believe especially since my own workplace imposes professional behavior. However Jordan Belfort has maintained in many interviews it did happen. Scorsese refused to water things down and Leonardo agreed it shouldn’t have been. I myself wasn’t shocked or outraged by the content on screen. As mentioned earlier, I was more shocked at these things as chronological events. Nevertheless it does have me asking: “Blue Is The Warmest Color got an NC-17 rating but this is rated R?”
This was a very good biographical movie done by Martin Scorsese. It’s not done epic-style like The Aviator. Nevertheless it is central to its themes and depicts Jordan as anyone on Wall Street who’s determined to do what it takes to rise amongst the top. Martin and scriptwriter Terence Winter knew how to do a movie very thematic of that. The main glitches is that I feel three hours is too long for a story like this. I question the length of it and I also question certain scenes like the one of Jordan and Donnie having delayed highs from the dated Quaaludes. If there’s one thing I give it kudos for, it’s that human elements didn’t get lost in it. In fact one scene I liked was near the end when Jordan’s parents are in tears when they hear of his sentence. The parent/son part of the whole story was a good addition and it was most valuable in that end scene. For the record, this is not the first movie of Jordan Belfort’s exploits. The first was 2000’s Boiler Room where a rising star by the name of Vin Diesel played Belfort.
As for the acting, Leonardo was excellent as Jordan Belfort. I was first expecting Jordan to be like Gordon Gecko of Wall Street. However while Gordon was more of a control freak, Jordan was like a Trojan warrior on a mission to conquer. Leonardo did an excellent balance of doing a character who appeared invincible but was oblivious to how out of control he was and ignorant to the limits of his power. Name any movie character synonymous with power–Braveheart, King Kong, Maximus from Gladiator— you can see it in Leo’s depiction of Jordan. Jonah Hill also did an excellent job of character acting in his role of Donnie. I have to say Jonah has really grown with his acting abilities ever since I first saw him play his big doofus roles early in his career. His performance as Donnie is a sure sign of his maturity as an actor over the years.
Margot Robbie has the most underrated role in the movie as wife Naomi: possibly the one person that can bring Jordan back to Earth and remind him of the limits of his powers. Sometimes Naomi appears to be one of Jordan’s drugs and Margot did a great job. There were also good minor performances from Jean Dujardin, Kyle Chandler and Joanna Lumley but the best had to come from Rob Reiner. He was great as the father watching both nervously and heartbreakingly as it all comes crashing down. Actually the whole ensemble caught your attention from start to finish. Hardly ever a dull moment. And the mix of music from various decades also added to the energy rush of the movie.
The Wolf Of Wall Street is an intriguing movie and will leave you shocked at the story being told. However it is not worth the three hours of running time given. Yes it does entertain and there’s rarely a dull moment but it makes you question whether all that time is worth it. Yes, it’s worth seeing but worth three hours of time?