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Birdman

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) apparently takes place in some alternate universe where the 1989 Batman franchise never happened. Instead, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) helped pioneer modern superhero cinema in the late ’80s by way of the multibillion-dollar Birdman trilogy. He left the character in the early ’90s, but it seems that the character didn’t leave him. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Cut to the modern day, when Riggan is a washed-up actor who hasn’t had a hit in twenty years. So now he’s staging a comeback to prove that he’s still talented and relevant. His vehicle: A Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” in which Riggan stars, directs, and wrote the script. Our movie picks up mere hours before the first preview showing, when one of the actors is injured in a freak accident and has to be replaced at the last minute by Broadway veteran Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). Things keep going wrong from there.

It’s not a very complicated premise, but director/co-writer Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu piles so many layers onto it.

First of all, the vast majority of the movie actually takes place in Riggan’s head. Most of what happens in this movie is seen from Riggan’s perspective. To say that he’s an unreliable narrator would be underselling it. The guy constantly sees and hears his superhero alter ego, and he frequently moves things with his mind when no one else is around. Not only does this add to the film’s demented flavor, but it gives us a very clear insight into Riggan’s massive ego and his constant need for attention.

Riggan is so badly tempted to see himself as a superhero — a God among men — because he’s apparently so uncomfortable with the truth that he’s only one of 8 billion people fighting for attention every day. The other characters offer frequent checks to Riggan’s ego, providing variations on the theme of just how small we are on a cosmic scale. Which in turn begs the question of where the point is in trying to create anything, especially something as ephemeral as a stage play.

By the way, these ego checks come mostly from Riggan’s assistant and daughter, Sam (Emma Stone). She’s a recovering drug addict who appears to have taken rehab by way of lessons that our problems don’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. Unfortunately, Sam might have taken the message a bit too far, since she’s by far the most vocal in telling her dad that we’re all a bunch of nobodies and nothing that he or anyone else does will amount to anything. Stone does a phenomenal job in the role, effortlessly playing a remarkable beauty who makes herself look like a hot mess to try and be invisible. Stone even looks like she lost weight for the role, adding to the portrayal of a broken girl whose addiction caused her to literally waste away. Good stuff.

Riggan also gets a nice dose of reality from his ex-wife (Sam’s mother, Sylvia, played by Amy Ryan). She’s there to help Riggan maintain a sense of self, cutting through all the showbiz crap to remind Riggan what he’s really like under the mask. She knows her ex-husband better than he knows himself, for better or worse. It’s refreshing to have such a level-headed character in a cast of unbalanced maniacs, and Ryan is a very underrated actor who’s always a pleasure to see onscreen.

Getting back to Riggan, he wants to be taken seriously as an artistic talent, but his methods and his philosophies are very deliberately old school. As one character points out, how could Riggan hope to get any kind of decent publicity in this day and age when he refuses any contact with bloggers or social media? Speaking of which, the movie’s treatment of the shallow and brainless entertainment “journalism” of today is quite merciless. The trailer already showed the scene in which Riggan speed-walks through Times Square in his tighty-whities, so I don’t mind spoiling that his stunt pulled down millions of views and TV news coverage when it hits the ‘Net. “This is power,” said one character to Riggan while watching the video. How’s that for a terrifying absurdity?

The point is that the publicists, journalists, and audiences of the world have grown more voracious as time has gone by, and Riggan has no idea how to give them what they want. Or maybe he does. After all, we can plainly see that Riggan’s portrayal of Birdman still has an army of fans, and superhero films are bigger than ever right now. It’s entirely possible that Riggan could sign on to do a fourth Birdman film and make another billion dollars at the box office, earning love and praise from a whole new generation of filmgoers.

Of course, that invites the question of whether love and adoration are the same thing. Plus, it’s entirely possible that another masked outing would fail and Riggan’s career would be over. Even if he succeeds, Riggan’s career might still be broken beyond repair, since it would only cement his reputation as a comic book actor who can only make hollow CGI spectacles. We’ll get back to that point later.

The concepts of earning fame and the love of an audience are also illustrated by Naomi Watts in the role of Riggan’s costar, Lesley. She’s an actress who’s overwhelmingly anxious to make her Broadway debut, and she’s dating the famed Broadway darling Mike Shiner (we’ll get to him in a minute), so she’s dealing with the consequences of fame from multiple angles. Watts does a fantastic job of capturing the screen, but I still can’t help feeling that she was a touch underutilized.

That goes double for Andrea Riseborough, here playing the fourth and final actor in Riggan’s play. Laura is also Riggan’s girlfriend and she may or may not be pregnant with his child. I get what the film was going for with her, providing a second chance for Riggan to be a good father after fucking that up so royally with Sam, and she provides a good sounding board for Lesley. Even so, she was pitifully, woefully underused. Just once, I want to see Riseborough in a film that’s worthy of her talents. Between this and Oblivion, I’m more than convinced that Riseborough can deliver an amazing performance with weak characters and/or a weak story. Could someone out there please give this woman a chance to bring the house down?!

Moving on, another central pillar of the story is the relationship between actors and the characters they play. Aside from Riggan and his schizophrenic relation to Birdman, the other prominent case in point is Edward Norton’s character. Mike is someone who devotes himself entirely to theatre, to the point where he barely begins to realize what an asshole he is offstage. He’s a condescending prick toward anyone who hasn’t shed bodily fluids for The Craft, he acts like a whiny little baby if his “needs” to get in character aren’t being met, and he doesn’t seem to have much of any personality outside of the characters he portrays. Hell, the guy can’t even get it up unless there’s an audience watching, much to Lesley’s frustration.

Come to think of it, Edward Norton spends just as much time either naked, assaulted, or both as Michael Keaton does in this picture. It’s kind of funny how the two most insufferably egotistical artistes in this cast of characters are also the two who get put through the most humiliation. It’s a nicely implicit way of punishing the characters for their hubris, I think.

As for Michael Keaton himself, this is a very intriguing case of art imitating life (or is it the other way around?). Keaton’s own superhero-related career baggage works beautifully as a shorthand for the story, and I’ve no doubt that Keaton went at this like he had something to prove. Just as Riggan did. I won’t go into detail about how Riggan’s attempts work out, but Keaton acquits himself wonderfully.

Then we have Birdman himself, voiced by Keaton and embodied by an uncredited Benjamin Kanes. The character obviously owes a great deal to Keaton’s iconic role from the 1980s, by which I of course mean Beetlejuice. No, seriously. The gravelly voice, the raging egomania, the dangerous and directionless energy that pleads and threatens to be unleashed upon the world, that’s all Beetlejuice. I can honestly say that I wasn’t expecting the choice to portray Birdman in such a way, but it works wonders. After all, Beetlejuice was an untrustworthy demon to deal with, and playing Birdman in a similar way adds to the vague impression that Riggan would be selling his soul to a devil if he gave in and kept making superhero movies.

Which brings me to the movie’s most problematic character. Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) is a theatre critic for the New York Times whose review of Riggan’s adaptation is guaranteed to make or break the production. The only problem is that Tabitha is already dead-set on doing everything in her power to make sure that Riggan’s career gets buried. Why, you ask? Well, it’s because Tabitha has a deep-seated hatred for everything related to Hollywood and its business model of churning out “cartoons and pornography,” so she’s taking it out on the washed-up movie star using the hallowed Great White Way to shore up his own legitimacy.

Granted, Tabitha is supposed to be an unsympathetic character, but that’s mostly because she’s a stone-cold bitch who won’t give Riggan a fair shake even after he’s putting a wholehearted effort into his play and he hasn’t made a film (much less a superhero film) in 20 years. That part I get. I take bigger issue, however, with the way Riggan accuses Tabitha of being some untalented hack who only works as a critic because she doesn’t have the creativity to make something of her own or the courage to risk the derision of others. It’s not a new idea, but the execution here is very iffy.

In Ratatouille, the critic made the observation of his own accord and offered it up to his readers in deference to an amazing talent he had just discovered. In Chef earlier this year, the critic turned out to be a halfway decent guy who was playing the publicity game and calling for more original ideas, just as the protagonist was. But in this movie, as Riggan was ranting and raving at a woman who only ever saw him as Birdman, I couldn’t help thinking that he might just as easily have been screaming at any of the countless fans who call him “Birdman!” throughout the picture. This suggests the possibility that the movie sees the audience as it sees the critics: A bunch of cowards hiding behind a keyboard, unable to try making something for ourselves, more focused on what’s been done in the past than what can be done in the future. For a variety of obvious reasons, that doesn’t sit well with me.

But by far my biggest problem with Tabitha’s attitude is that it’s not just limited to her. Every single character stereotypes movies as hollow big-budget CGI extravaganzas that make billions of dollars. Just as every theatre production is stereotyped as a work of high art that no one pays attention to. This dichotomy is such a heaping pile of nonsense that I scarcely know where to begin.

First of all, Broadway has always been loaded with plays that are every bit as costly, flashy, and vapid as anything Hollywood has produced. This is the institution that spends untold millions of dollars inventing new costumes, special effects, and set pieces to drive up ticket sales, just like movie studios do. That isn’t even getting started on all the Disney film adaptations that have come out on Broadway, “The Lion King” being perhaps the most prominent example. Seriously, this movie takes place in a theater where “The Phantom of the Opera” is clearly being produced right across the street, and it has the gall to present live theatre as some bastion of intellect and high art untouched by spectacle and commercialism?!

Secondly, I’ve had it up to here with the idea that a movie couldn’t possibly have any artistic merit if it’s flashy and colorful and exciting. It’s rank elitist horseshit to say that “intelligent” and “popular” are mutually exclusive. Seriously, let’s take a look at the highest-grossing movies of all-time right now (note that I’m going by the domestic chart without adjusting for inflation). Avatar was an environmentalist allegory about Native American genocide, albeit one presented with a dearth of subtlety. Titanic was a story about the wonders that human ingenuity and enterprise can create, and also about the destruction that our greed and short-sightedness can wreak. The Avengers made a few statements about arms escalation and how some problems can’t be solved with the application of larger bombs. The Dark Knight made some very pointed statements about domestic surveillance, as did the more recent Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Hell, even Star Trek Into Darkness tried (and failed) to make a coherent statement about unmanned drones and executing soldiers without trial.

Those specific examples are all up for debate, of course, and there are definitely exceptions (see: the ongoing success of the Transformers franchise). Even so, the point stands that the most successful modern blockbusters can — and often do — use CGI spectacle as sugar to help the proverbial medicine go down.

Thirdly, the idea that A-list celebrities can’t possibly make anything of artistic value after spearheading a big-budget franchise is sheer unbridled lunacy. Daredevil made a movie about marital infidelity. Hawkeye made a film about government corruption and whistle-blowing journalism. Magneto was in a movie about American slavery. Mystique won a goddamn Oscar for a movie about mental illness. Captain America made a film about social stratification. Thor is coming out with a movie about security in the Internet age. Black Widow made… whatever the hell Under the Skin was. And someone out there is saying that actors can’t use their star power to help get more artistically relevant pictures made while ensuring that those movies get enough promotion to put asses in seats? Bullshit, they can’t!

That aside, there’s no denying that the film is beautifully crafted. The editing is attributed to Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione, both masters who’ve frequently collaborated with Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney. The camerawork was done by Emmanuel Lubezki, previously responsible for Gravity and other movies that look impossibly good. Together with Inarritu, they work together to craft a movie that’s presented pretty much entirely as a single take. I’m not an idiot, of course; I’m sure there were a number of hidden edits along the way, but the illusion is remarkable and it does so much to put the audience in the movie. It lends an authentic air that makes the special effects even more magical, and there are some truly impressive devices used to compress three days of time into two hours of film. The presentation is simply amazing.

Speaking of which, the score (provided by Antonio Sanchez) merits discussion as well. Most of it is provided by a single drummer on a kit, and the drummer himself occasionally pops up out of nowhere. And no one comments on this. It’s a neat little effect to keep the audience on our toes and put us in Riggan’s unbalanced frame of mind. The drum music itself is simplistic enough not to distract from the proceedings, but emotive enough to enhance the onscreen action. Bits of classical music are also utilized, and often presented in a kind of interactive way with the characters. It’s all quite clever.

As for miscellaneous notes, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Zack Galifianakis, who appears as Riggan’s best friend/attorney/publicist. He seems like an odd choice to play the role, but Galifianakis brings a kind of energy and also a kind of vulnerability to the character that might not have been there if Jake was played by anyone else. Casting Galifianakis was a very bold choice and I’d argue that it paid off.

For a few final nitpicks, I’m sorry to say that the movie had some storylines that range from undercooked to entirely useless. For example, do you remember that actor who got put out of commission by a freak accident? Well, there’s a subplot in which he’s threatening to sue. It could have been cut from the film entirely without consequence. Also, I’ve already remarked about how Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough were underused, but Emma Stone isn’t immune either. She gets a romance arc with Edward Norton’s character, and the storyline cuts off just short of anything interesting or relevant happening. It develops the characters, sure, but a halfway decent conclusion that ties in with the main plot would have been nice. Just saying.

I also take issue with some of the film’s recurring symbols, specifically the meteor and the dead jellyfish that the movie will occasionally cut to. It’s pretentious non sequitur symbolism that isn’t adequately developed, exactly the sort of thing that turned me away from Inarritu’s previous film, Biutiful. However, since these moments are strictly limited to short bursts at the very beginning and very end, I’m not going to hold it against the movie too badly. Also, I’m open to the idea that both had explanations and I simply missed them.

Birdman is certainly not a bad movie, but it’s far from a perfect one. The movie’s statements about egocentrism and celebrity culture are fascinating, multi-layered, and cleverly presented. Yet its statements about theatre and cinema are built on a “high art/low art” duality that’s frankly rather insulting for how out-of-touch and blatantly untrue it is. Also, though I complain about characters and storylines that might have been more fully developed, that’s primarily because the characters are still so fascinating and so superbly played that they deserved better.

The creative and immersive presentation is enough on its own to merit a recommendation of “go see this now.” But best of the year? I don’t think so.

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