The much talked about, highly-anticipated, Oscar-buzz-worthy Birdman opens in theaters today. Its full title: Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), lives up to the hype, offering itself up as one of the most strangely unique, mesmerizing films of the year.
Birdman relies heavily on its self-awareness and on its satirical elements, dealing with movie stars, criticism, perception, and all things that might be considered “art.” It only works because of the audience’s ability to draw parallels between its subject, Riggan Thomson and the actor, Michael Keaton who plays him. Riggan Thomson is a washed up actor who nearly twenty years ago had great success and was an A-List star when he appeared in the super-hero blockbuster film, “Birdman.” Keaton of course, once starred as Batman, and although “washed up” may be a bit harsh, he is in need of a hit, trying to make a comeback of sorts while overcoming the trappings of his past persona.
When we first meet him in the film, Riggan Thomson is attempting to revive his career on the stage, where “real” actors go to flex their muscles. He is writing, producing and starring in a play adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” When tragedy falls (literally) on one of his actors, his close friend and co-producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) and female lead Lesley (Naomi Watts), urge him to bring in a well-known actor at the top of his game for the role. He reluctantly adds Mike (Edward Norton) to the cast, hoping that the big star will bring even more attention to the work. Meanwhile, we find out that Riggan has impregnated another one of the actresses, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), has divorced his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) and is still dealing with the fall-out from being a sh**ty father to his rebellious daughter and assistant, Sam (Emma Stone).
And all of this is the least of his worries. Thomson also hears from a voice in his head, the low and rumbling voice of his alter-ego, Birdman himself, who sounds a lot like Keaton’s Batman voice. When the “two” are alone, they can still do magnificent, super-hero things. Birdman is Riggan just as much as Riggan is Birdman. He fills Riggan’s head with doubt, with constant reminders about his fall from grace and his once-gotten glory. Riggan is not well, drowning in self-doubt and betting his entire well-being on the success of the play, all the while trying to fight back his feathered demons.
The film itself appears to take place in one long, continuous shot…a tremendously effective technical stroke of genius. The camera slowly moves around as if in a dream, with the characters moving in and out of frame and the camera lingering long enough to feign interest, before meandering away to something new. It’s brilliant work from Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki, another glorious, award-worthy and masterful entry into his canon of work that already includes Children of Men, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder and most recently, the breath-taking Oscar-winning Gravity. His work here creates within Birdman a sense of fantasy, and acts almost as a character itself.
The technical aspects of Birdman would not be complete without mentioning the work of director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. He seems enamored with the idea of blurring the lines between realism and the surreal, of what is true and what isn’t. As with his last film, Biutiful, there are elements of fantasy in Birdman, and not unlike the former film, Inarritu seems much more interested in the journey than the destination.
In other words, where Birdman takes us is ultimately less important than the ride there. This approach may be frustrating for some who expect concrete answers and who like to have their stories wrapped up with no loose ends. But it’s exhilarating for those who allow this film to wash over them.
Keaton gives a tremendous performance, as does the entirety of the ensemble, most notably Edward Norton as the pompous, destructive mega-star who is threatening to ruin everything Thomson has going. Keaton though, is the only actor who could ever play this role, since our knowledge of his personal career is what makes the movie click. It is darkly funny and very aware of itself. It also has a lot to say about celebrity, media and even criticism. As one person puts it in the film, “Criticism is something people do when they can’t achieve art,” or something like that. Another character tells us that “popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” The movie is so hard on critics specifically, that I feel there may be a portion of us who take these jabs as insults. I take them as insightful criticism of criticism itself, an area that movie-makers and writers rarely venture into and one that I found to be spot-on.
I suspect that this will be a film that many feel the need to talk about after they watch it. For those looking for a clue as to what it all meant, I suggest looking onto Riggan Thomson’s dressing room mirror, where a quote is posted that reads: “A thing is a thing. Not what is said about that thing.” Things are what they are, we only view them in a certain way. Perception is reality. What makes Riggan washed up? What makes his past self so attractive to him, even when his actions during that time led to a life full of regrets? Is his play a flop or is it a success just because a powerful critic deems it to be one or the other? Should the film’s ending be taken literally or is there some other sort of symbolic, deeper meaning?
I guess it all comes down to perspective. And from my point of view, Birdman soars higher than most films I’ve experienced this year.
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Run Time: 1 hour 59 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan
Co-Written & Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Biutiful, Babel, 21 Grams)
Opens locally on Friday, Oct 24, 2014 (check for show times).
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How to read Tom Santilli’s “Star Ratings:”
- 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
- 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
- 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
- 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
- 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time