Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Who Needs Batman When You Can Have "Birdman"?

"Hey, I'm in this movie too, Keaton, and I'm pretty damn good."
Movies about actors and the industry can be annoying.  There are usually a lot of in-jokes and most of the characters are egomaniacal and unlikable.  Birdman doesn’t buck the trend of in-jokes or unlikable characters, but it is certainly funny and one of the most entertaining films of the year…although some might still find it a bit annoying.

Birdman is about fading actor Riggan Thomson’s attempt to gain respect by directing and starring in a stage production of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” on Broadway.  That sounds awfully pretentious (and it kind of is, which is the point), but it’s less about the play Riggan’s putting on than it is about himself.  Riggan has some ego/fame issues.  After giving up playing a superhero (Birdman) for the big studios, he has now become something of a footnote.  Riggan hopes his play will somehow show the world how great he (still) is. 

Birdman is much more complicated than that, though.  First off, Riggan has superpowers.  Or at least he thinks he does.  The first time we see Riggan, he is levitating in his dressing room.  The film has multiple sequences of magical realism that may or not actually be happening (there’s a stronger case for them not actually happening, however).  Regardless, Riggan’s “powers” just show how egotistical he is.  As if that’s not enough, he also hears the voice of Birdman, who is constantly deriding this artistic move and urges Riggan to go back to the blockbuster scene.  As you can imagine, this allows for plenty of thoughts about the state of Hollywood, acting, fame, etc.  It’s all very existential and interesting on multiple levels.

For instance, when you read the name Michael Keaton most people will automatically think of Batman.  Keaton famously decided not to play Batman for a third time and has been less relevant ever since.  His casting adds another layer to consider.  (For the record, Keaton claims he has less in common with this character than any other he has portrayed.)  The meta casting does not stop there.  Edward Norton plays a famously difficult actor who is combative throughout (Norton has been accused of being difficult many times).  Oh, and Norton also once played the Incredible Hulk.  Emma Stone, who plays Riggan’s troubled daughter, was in The Amazing Spiderman.  And there are a few references to other actors involved with superhero movies as well.  This is perhaps Birdman’s most relevant theme: the superhero film’s destruction of actual acting.  Now more than ever, Hollywood is obsessed with superheroes.  Both Marvel and DC have movies planned out for the rest of the decade.  Birdman is very much an anti-superhero movie.  Sure, there are plenty of movies that are not superhero movies, but this one is making a point by defiantly not being a superhero movie.  Birdman isn’t likely to take away from the audience of those other films, but it proves a film can be more entertaining and certainly more interesting with a good script, great performances, and some inventive camerawork. 

Speaking of camerawork, Birdman is getting a bit of attention for being cut to appear as if it is one long take.  This is not a gimmick, even though it adds a respectable layer of difficulty to the process.  The camerawork actually fits into the free-flowing nature of the film.  This is not just about Riggan.  The camera wanders throughout the theatre stopping in on an assortment of characters.  It helped create the feeling of chaos that surrounds the production of the play Riggan is staging.  The percussion heavy score adds to that chaos, too, making Birdman one of the most frenetic films of the year.  It’s fun, though, rather than exhausting.

The film is about so many things it’s hard to pinpoint what the overall experience is about really.  It might sound pretentious, but Birdman is simply about life: love, art, ego, comedy, fame, etc.  It’s all there, and there are plenty of messages to be gleaned from the film, but one moment summed it up best for me.  During one of the more chaotic times for Riggan, he comes across a man yelling Macbeth’s famous soliloquy about life being “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  Birdman is certainly full of “sound and fury,” and maybe it’s even about nothing.  But Macbeth was pretty crazy when he said that, so what does he know?  I, for one, found that to be a key scene.  Everything is too complicated to be boiled down to some singular point or lesson.  I could go on and on about different issues presented by the film, but I’ll just point out one that is very relevant for this review.

At one point, Riggan verbally assaults a theater critic.  He rants at the critic, telling her all she is doing is labeling things.  She’s not really saying anything.  She’s not really doing anything.  Is that a fair assessment of criticism (a criticism of criticism, if you will)?  I think so.  I’ve always held that my reviews are simply opinions.  I cast judgment, sure, but I write in the first person because I know my views are not definitive.  Who am I to tell you if something is good or bad?  All I can do is give my personal opinion of it.  This is dangerous territory for writer/director Alejandro Iñárritu, however, because no matter how good your argument is, it still comes across as a bit petty when you write a rant aimed at critics.  But then again, isn’t every review a rant (good or bad) aimed at the filmmakers?  Hmm…okay, it’s cool with me, Iñárritu, especially if you keep making awesome movies like this.  Give those critics hell!

This film took me by surprise because I was expecting an acting display first and a film second.  Keaton has been the focus of all press and previews for the film, and rightfully so, to the point that it seems like it’s a one-trick pony.  Keaton is certainly amazing.  He is funny, sad, intense, and utterly believable in this role.  Most importantly, he makes what should be a hated character likable.  I should not have wanted things to work out for him, but I did.  I credit Keaton for that.  He is absolutely entertaining and is on par with the rest of the filmmaking.  The rest of the cast is up to task as well.  They’re all great, but Emma Stone stands out mainly for one great scene she has with Keaton.  But it’s Edward Norton who nearly steals the show.  He may be playing a perceived version of himself, but it’s so good.  I loved the scenes in which he is “acting” as much as his “real” moments.  This film reminded me how great of an actor he can be (not that he’s been bad; it just seems like great roles like this have been few).  I foresee at least one Oscar for this cast, but I hope I see two. 

Birdman obviously worked for me.  It made me laugh consistently but also think about life, love, the film industry, fame, viral fame, ego, criticism, etc.  The film juggles so many ideas while also being visually impressive.  It is easily one of the year’s best films.

Birdman receives a:

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