I walked out of Birdman last night feeling exhilarated, confused, and unqualified to review it.
The film, nominated for seveon Golden Globes including Best Picture- Musical or Comedy and Best Director), follows (literally, through most of it) Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a fictional ex-movie star most famous for playing a superhero called Birdman as he tries to re-invent himself as a Broadway star in a play that he wrote, directs, and stars in. The production is shaping up to be a disaster throughout rehearsals as it’s star must not only deal with his own demons but also with his eleventh-hour replacement co-star who threatens to steal the spotlight (Edward Norton), a high-maintenance actress afraid of spoiling her one chance to be in a Broadway show, his high-strung lawyer (Zach Galifanakis), and his resentful daughter who is straight out of rehab.
Whenever possible, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inamitu gives the appearance of one long continuous take as he follows his actors from backstage to Times Square to a nearby bar. Some of this was accomplished through fancy editing tricks but the film’s stars apparently would have to shoot up to 15 pages of dialogue at a time. That and the complex choreography of the walk make what would otherwise be a pretty talky movie feel action-packed. Even those with little interest in cinematography and editing are likely to be impressed. And the cast, with Keaton and Norton being clear stand-outs, seem grateful for the challenge.
I feel shy about reviewing Birdman because it’s more surreal touches involving Thomson’s frequent arguments with the voice of Birdman in his head left me scratching mine. Many scenes are ambiguous and are probably meant to be but sometimes left me feeling like I wasn’t understanding what was going on. But mostly, I feel shy to review it because few seem to be able to escape its brutal honesty as it takes aim at Hollywood, Broadway, critics, bloggers, Twitter, awards season, and self-importance in general. I felt like I was being dared to love this movie- or to hate it- only so it could mock me for it. The script and acting feel refreshingly honest even as it seems to question its own ability to do so. Keaton and Norton contribute to the multi-layeredness, both playing parts that are so close to their real-life public personas.
My review of this is all over the place. Sorry about that. I’m still not sure what to make of this movie. I can tell you that you I doubt you’d regret watching it. And that (I never thought I’d say this) someone should nominate Michael Keaton for an Oscar. Even if the makers of Birdman would laugh at them for it.
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Riggan shoots himself on stage to bring meaning to his art, a final fuck you to the critic he locks eyes with just before pulling the trigger. But the next morning he wakes up to find that this suicide attempt was unsuccessful and the whole country is talking about his glowing review – not about his nuanced performance (which, up until he takes out the gun, was in fact quite good) but about his ‘super-realism’. He has once again ‘gone viral’ and become the thing he hates. The critic, meanwhile, accused of hyperbolic and snarky reviews, had promised to destroy his show, sight unseen. She ends up writing a rave, albeit one with all the same labels and trash tactics that she was accused of to begin with. So maybe the director, who has lashed out at critics before in real life, is telling us he understands now. They too are in the business of selling. They resort to these tactics because that’s what it takes to get noticed.
Riggan seems to hate social media, or at least not understand it. When his daughter shows him the video on her cell phone, she tells him “this is power” – but it’s like showing fire to a caveman. Possibly he sees twitter, blogging, etc as just more “criticism” but the movie forgets to mention that film only exists because of its audience. All of these people watching, and then writing about watching, and talking about watching, we’re all part of the machine. And Riggan needs to be watched, it’s part of his inherent narcisim, and possibly true of all actors. Theirs is only half the equation. It’s not acting unless someone agrees to watch. It’s just pretending. Riggan is clearly afraid of being irrelevent and yet can’t bridge the gap toward relevance in the 21st century.
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