Expert film discussion from completely unqualified people


November 7, 2014

Rob becomes a Michael Keaton fan for one hundred and nineteen minutes.

"You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big."
"I am big. It's the pictures that got small."
- Sunset Boulevard

Those searching for a guiding theme in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's new black comedy Birdman need only look to its alternate title The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. Though the plot is familiar (a fading Hollywood star takes one last shot at redemption), it's ultimately the story of a desperate man learning that for as much as we plan, for as much as we hesitate, for as much as we risk, sometimes the best course of action is to just let go.

Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is a famous movie star. Well, he was. He used to be Birdman, the titular hero in a popular action series. But he gave all that up long ago, turning down Birdman IV in search of Oscar glory. Sadly, predictably, it never came. Twenty years and one failed marriage later, Thompson decides to stage a Broadway adaption of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. It's heady stuff befitting his last shot at a serious career. He recruits his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) to costar and his recovering addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone) as his assistant. Also in the mix are Lesley (the sorely underrated Naomi Watts), a perky ingenue who's finally getting her first shot at Broadway, and Jake (Zach Galifinakis), Riggan's lawyer, producer, and best friend. 

Things get hairy when a freak accident incapacitates one of the lead actors (he was terrible anyway). Luckily, Lesley is able to pull some strings and recruit critical darling Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) with whom she "shares a vagina." Trouble is, Mike's not cheap. Riggan is forced to refinance his house to pay his fee. On top of that, Shiner is needy, unpredictable, and a colossal pain in the ass. Not to mention that theater critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) is gunning for Riggan. She sees him as just another spoiled Hollywood faker and plans to singlehandedly close his show by writing the worst review of her career. Out of money, energy, and time, Riggan has no choice but to take this last shot and make good. 

Now might be an appropriate time to mention that Riggan can levitate, control objects telepathically, and is constantly harassed by the Birdman persona that has taken root in his consciousness. Or maybe those things aren't true. It's that kind of movie. 

Birdman is a story of crippling doubt and wasted potential. Riggan is pretty sure he's a great actor who never got a fair shot. Mike Shiner is pretty sure that the theater is the purest form of artistic expression and that all these phonies should worship him. Sam is pretty sure her father is a distant, conniving jackass who only cares about himself. Jake is pretty sure Riggan can pull this off. Lesley is pretty sure this is her big shot at Broadway glory. Or maybe those things aren't true. It's that kind of movie. 

With the exception of Babel (ambitious, but flawed) I must plead ignorance to Mr. Gonzalez Inarritu's filmography. I'll be keeping a closer eye from now on. Birdman is a frenzied masterpiece of kinetic energy. The film never leaves that one block of Broadway, but it squeezes each and every square inch of usable space out of it. The stage, wings, and dressing rooms all feel as real and as raw as the stresses they cause. Characters seamlessly move from ticket booths to corner bars. The schizophrenic style is amplified by the throbbing drums of Antonio Sanchez, which comprise nearly the entire soundtrack. It's the heartbeat of the film, an excellent choice that echoes the same genius of the zither score in Carol Reed's The Third Man. Like that film, I can't imagine this one without the music. It gives the characters purpose and drive as they plow their way through the dank theater hallways.

And now we must discuss cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. After flexing his muscle on Y tu mama tambien and Children of Men, Mr. Lubezki finally received Academic recognition for his work on Gravity. Believe it or not, that space adventure and this dark night of the soul share something important: They both play as one long, interrupted shot. Gravity is a technical marvel of special effects and lighting, no doubt, but Mr. Lubezki proves his genius with the staging, editing, and execution of Birdman. The camera follows characters through hallways and stairwells, bouncing around and looking for the best action. It pans seamlessly from Mike and Sam's tryst on the catwalk to Mike in wardrobe on stage later that night. The moves are expertly choreographed and the cuts are expertly hidden. Throw in the aforementioned drumming and you've got the work of a mad genius. 

But none of it works without the actors, some of whom are seemingly cast as meta commentary on their real-life careers. Mike Shiner's post-modern prima donna attitude oddly parallels the notorious on-set behavior that cost Edward Norton another turn as The Incredible Hulk. Our first cinematic Batman as an aging former superhero? The Amazing Spider-Man's Gwen Stacy as his daughter and moral compass? Birdman is a superhero story in more ways than one. There are even a few pointed references to Robert Downey Jr.'s own second-half career turnaround in Iron Man. Should Riggan take this path and return to the feathered cowl, or should he instead suffer for the art? Is this his own superhero origin story?

There's little to say about the performances, really. They just flat-out work. I have trouble enough taking my eyes off of Emma Stone in normal circumstances, but her broken and cynical Sam is a wonder. Naomi Watts hasn't been used this well since Mulholland Drive. Edward Norton is always good, but he gets to stretch his legs a bit more than usual with Mike Shiner. And yes, Michael Keaton carries it all. I've thrown my share of shots at him and I can't quite take it all back yet, but if he keeps this up, well. I'll eat the titular crow, as it were. 

For all its strengths, Birdman suffers from an ending or three too many and could do with a nip and tuck in places. I would have traded some of the Lesley/Mike stuff for some more time with Riggan and his ex-wife (Amy Ryan). There's an obvious time cut near the end that would be perfectly acceptable in any other film, but I was disappointed that they went there after two hours of subtle shifts and turns. I can't imagine Mr. Lubezki just ran out of energy six feet from the finish line, so there must be something to it that I'll pick up on during viewing number seven. But these are all small complaints and technical quibbles, all there is to critique after such a cathartic journey. I've heard the film called self-indulgent. Of course it is. That's the point. It's an exploration of the nature of art and creativity. Of fame and recognition. Riggan has to indulge a bit to find himself, and does he ever. Without spoiling, I can say that the final sequence is jarring and incredibly ambiguous, but it fits. It's the payoff of a bizarre promise the film makes in its opening. It's a hell of a thing, and it works. 


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