“Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige, my friend.”
For some people, the reason for existence is relevance. The possible attainment of ubiquity gets them out of bed in the morning, and the idea of the power it provides is the shot of caffeine that gets them past that 2:30 feeling. What’s most remarkable about Birdman is its ability to make us care about selfish, destructive characters. Give a middling director this script and you’d get a decent movie. But in the artisan hands of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, we get one of the best films of 2014. It’s seamless, a vehicle for powerful performances that never settles for cruise control or hands at ten and two, instead always pushing the envelope while maintaining constant command. I’ll admit that I didn’t love it, probably because that’s not what it sets out to accomplish. But mostly I was left dumbfounded. Birdman is a technical marvel and filmmaking of the highest order reinforced by one of the strongest acting ensembles in recent memory. See it as soon as you can.
Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, a has-been known worldwide for his performance as the fictional superhero Birdman. Depressed and out of work, he pours everything he has left, physically and financially and emotionally, into a go for broke Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Riggan is the star, the director, the writer. The success or failure mostly comes down to him. But he also has to deal with recasting a role last minute, bringing aboard mega ticketseller and method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). Then New York Times critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), a dour and implacable woman tells him over a gin and tonic, “I’m going to kill your play.” For Riggan, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Bolstered by a textured plot and full of mazelike, almost Kubrickian POV shots inside the theater’s hallways, Birdman soars above nearly every film made this year. I really don’t think the movie has the kind of widespread appeal to sway the Academy voters, but it should still rightfully be nominated in nearly every major category, especially the technical awards. The sound editing and mixing are tremendous, as is the bebop jazz score that could’ve been laid down by Dizzy Gillespie himself. I’d be remiss to not acknowledge the pure craftsmanship and finessed skill that Inarritu displays. His filmography, which includes Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Biutiful (all three are necessary viewing), posits him as one of the best filmmakers of his generation. With Birdman, he gifts us something to behold.
As Jake, the producer/attorney/friend to Riggan, Zach Galifianakis once again proves his all-around ability that exceeds just being a comic. Naomi Watts plays Lesley, a vulnerable woman who at long last gets her shot on Broadway, and is the most human of the cast. And even though she’s hardly in it, Emma Stone absolutely deserves best supporting actress consideration. She’s the recently rehab discharged daughter of Riggan, and during the film’s most pivotal scene where she deservingly verbally attacks her father’s ego, Stone gives some of the best acting you’ll see this year. She absolutely nails it.
However, the film’s best moments come from Norton and Keaton. They’ll both be nominated, although Norton won’t win, but that doesn’t detract from either of their fantastic performances. I don’t think I’ve seen Norton this good since his career best effort in American History X, and he is perfectly cast as a crummy guy who is only real when he’s on stage, even getting a hard on for the first time in months in front of hundreds of strangers because he’s so damn comfortable under the lights. And Keaton, playing a man who mirrors his own career path, is so achingly raw as the washed up actor. You can see the desperation in his eyes, smell the booze on his breath, feel the pain in his existence. He’s a bad father and an even worse man, self-absorbed and shallow, but you’ll still hope he finds the limelight again. Ambiguity is his kryptonite.
There were two things that didn’t work for me. 1.) A voice over by Riggan as the character Birdman, speaking out loud, was so unevenly used. 2.) During those same scenes, Riggan oftentimes found himself capable of leaping off of a building and flying, or making objects levitate and throw them against the wall. You should, and probably will, understand why these supernatural elements are there. But that doesn’t mean they’re as effectively implemented as they should have been. It’s more of a comment than it is a critique, but the movie is so reminiscent of a stage production in that no actor, not even Keaton, gets to carry enough of the load to clearly break away from the pack. Every person gets their moment to shine, during which pivotal characters go completely missing.
Pioneering movies 12 Angry Men and Rope are long take films, comprised of a handful of drawn out scenes, stretching as far as each take could literally go on film. And then came 2002’s Russian Ark, a beautiful glimpse into the continent’s history, which took advantage of the digital format and filmed the 87 minute movie in one long take. Birdman looks to do the same, but secretly uses expert editing and choreography to meld the multi-day/location story into one fluid shot. It’s the perfect approach to a story about a Rumpelstiltskinesque man. Like the imp, Riggan is a deeply ignorant figure, capable of finding bliss in his own unforeseen hamartia. The Brothers Grimm version ends with Rumpelstiltskin flying out of the window on a cooking ladle. In the groundbreaking Birdman, we witness the inability to delineate between reality and acting, and how for Riggan, becoming or abandoning Birdman serves as a means of finding self-worth and value or total disillusionment. Few adversaries can be as destructive as the ego.
“You confuse love for admiration.”
Rating: 4.5 out of 5