Opening Dec. 25

By all indications, the actor Christoph Waltz is a perfectly nice guy in real life. On screen, however, he projects a creepy menace that resonates on some ambient frequency. That makes him wrong for the lead role in BIG EYES, director Tim Burton’s otherwise engaging film based on the real-life story of con artist extraordinaire Walter Keane, who built a fraudulent pop-art empire in the 1950s and ’60s.

The short version: Keane made millions selling mass-produced prints of his “Big Eyes” paintingsmaudlin portraits of sad children with, you guessed it, big eyes. The art establishment reviled the work, but Keane laughed (and drank, and caroused) all the way to the bank. Later, it was dramatically disclosed that his wife, Margaret (Amy Adams), was the actual creator of the paintings, and that Walter was a world-class charlatan and sociopath.

Walter turned out to be a very bad guy, but he’s not supposed to start out that way. When Margaret first meets him, the film tries to make us fall in love along with her, swept away by Walter’s charm and charisma. But as a screen performer, Waltz is constitutionally incapable of being genuinely likeable. We’re on guard with this asshole immediately. He lost us at hello.

Waltz’s performance gets bigger and brasher as the movie goes on, and it distracts from what is otherwise a fascinating, totally bonkers true story. Adams, as usual, finds the emotional core of her character and delivers a lovely performance. Her eyes are the most interesting ones in the film.

Burton’s direction is relatively restrained, but his trademark visual style pops up occasionally, and effectively. Visual weirdness, usually Burton’s medium, becomes his subject herea portal through which he explores some new themes about art, deception, feminism and American popular culture. It’s too bad that a serious casting error handicaps it from the get-go.

This article appeared in print with the headline “(Escape) Home for the holidays.”