The Film: Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
What’s It About? Best known to the public as Birdman, the superhero he once played in a series of films, Riggan Thomson hopes to reestablish himself as a serious actor by mounting his own dramatic production on Broadway. With his self-doubt hindering the project, Thomson also finds himself threatened by the presence of a high-profile, egotistical movie star in his cast.
Number of Oscar Nominations: 9
Will It Win? Birdman is a chaotic, enjoyable mess of a movie, a pitch-black comedy about artistic types, and it’s hugely entertaining. But is it really the Film of the Year? Apparently the Producers Guild of America thinks so; they just awarded it Best Picture. I’ll be watching tonight’s SAG Awards to see if Michael Keaton’s fellow actors think he’s just wonderful – if he wins the SAG, his odds of taking the Oscar home will increase dramatically. Hollywood loves a comeback story, and while Keaton never really went away, getting the Oscar would put him back on top.
As is often the case, it’s the Supporting Role Oscars that are the most difficult to predict. Emma Stone’s performance is fantastic, and she’s the only ingenue among the Best Supporting Actress nominess (sorry, Keira Knightley, but in acting terms, darling, you’re old). I can’t see Stone taking it from Patricia Arquette. Likewise, if Ed Norton wins Best Supporting Actor, it will be a shock – not just because J.K Simmons has it all but locked up, but also because Norton is really just playing a heightened version of himself. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography seems certain to win (unless the Academy decides to hold last year’s win for Gravity against him). Could this be the year that the great Roger Deakins finally gets an Oscar? (twelve nominations; no wins).
Is Birdman the best film that Terry Gilliam never made? The movie’s woozy cinematography, extreme close-ups, perverse and claustrophobic production design, and air of madness and magic realism are all Gilliam’s hallmarks, and it’s hard to watch the film and not think of Brazil, The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys. Perhaps after the success of Birdman and with his newfound Hollywod clout, Alejandro Iñárritu should collaborate with Gilliam on the Don Quixote movie that Gilliam has been trying to get going for the last twenty years.
I came to Birdman having heard a lot of praise, much of which was about its setting backstage on Broadway, and how this was a film that theatre luvvies will just adore (they probably will; it’s a very funny portrayal of that world). I read one review that asked “is this the best movie about the theatre ever made?” and I thought “wow, have you never seen All About Eve? Or The Dresser?” Because as good and sharp as Birdman is about life in the theatre, it still lacks the sting of either of those films. If anything, it owes its biggest debt to the fantasy elements of Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz and the madness of Darren Aranofsky’s Black Swan (at times Birdman plays like a much less cruel version of the ballet company movie; both are about the fine line between creativity and madness, and both feature a brauvura central performance).
Much has been made of Iñárritu’s directorial conceit, how with a few tricks the film appears to unspool as one two-hour take, and the film deserves praise for its cinematography, which helps to buoy the audience along and keeps the story moving at a decent pace (you certainly won’t get bored watching it). But without that piece of cinema trickery, would the film be any good? It doesn’t say anything about the allure of acting that hasn’t been said before, and the genius madman suffering for his art is hardly an original protagonist.
What makes it worthwhile – just – is the genius of its casting. Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thoson, a washed up movie star who was once famous for a series of comic-book movies, and who longs to be taken seriously as an actor. He makes his Broadway debut adapting, directing and starring in an ambitious version of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. As a play it looks awful, as I imagine any dramatic version of Carver’s work would be (he was well-served by the cinema in Altman’s Short Cuts), and if anything, Birdman should be acknowledged for introducing some audience members to the writer (if you’ve never read Carver, put this review down immediately and go read some of his stuff).
Although in real life Keaton is famous for Batman, and although his career might have taken a few knocks since, he’s not really washed up, and has been working regularly and steadily for the last twenty years. Birdman is not really a comeback role, and Keaton is not Riggan Thomson. But then again in many ways he is, because although Keaton has been working away in good (and bad) films for years, it’s been a long, long times since he was the star of a movie. And his performance is very good. He bares his soul a lot and is filled with self-loathing. He looks old – very old, in fact (those close-ups show every wrinkle) – and he may well win the Oscar for the “daring” feat of running through Times Square in his skivvies. The Academy loves it when actors do shit like that.
Speaking of washed up, there’s a shot of washed up jellyfish at the beginning of the film that hints at where the film is going (see very bottom of review for my thoughts on that – but it’s a spoiler, so be warned.)
Ed Norton, likewise, has a lot of fun playing a character not so far removed from himself. Mike Shiner is a fiercely talented but pretentious theatre actor who speaks nonsense about how on stage he aims for the truth, and how everything else in his life is not real. As a character he’s insufferable – a vain, pompous diva filled with faux self-loathing. He’s also impotent, except in the love-scene on stage where he gets a raging hard-on. He makes ridiculous demands of his fellow actors and calls out Thomas as a movie-star phoney. He insists on drinking real booze on stage and has a sunbed installed in his dressing room because his character is a redneck. I suspect that pretty much anyone who has worked with Norton will watch him in Birdman and think they’re watching a documentary about the actor.
Zach Galifianakis is Thomson’s friend and nervous producer, and he’s quite good (even if he flubs his lines occasionally, Innaritu’s long takes don’t allow for a do-over).
As the two other actresses in Thomson’s play, Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough do well enough with what they’re given – which isn’t much – and when the script runs out of ideas for them, it resorts to a cheap lesbian kiss, because, well, why not, darlings?
As Thomson’s druggy daughter and long-suffering ex-wife, Emma Stone and Amy Ryan give the only honest performances in the film. Stone, in particular, shines, particularly in a scene where she lambasts her father for being out of touch with the world. She falls for Norton’s character, of course, but not without calling him on his bullshit first. Lindsay Duncan’s bitchy theatre critic is an awful stereotype, but she does get to deliver an honest assessment of the bullshit that Hollywood believes in.
Birdman does have one thing going for it: it will feed your subconscious. I saw the film late at night and when I fell asleep, I had a very cool, very weird dream where I was backstage at a strange avant-garde theatre. In the dream everyone was beautiful and very witty, there was an extremely sexy French chick … and I got laid. So there’s that.
Birdman is lots of fun, and probably should be seen by anyone who has ever had any sort of creative urge, if only to serve as a warning that there is a difference between ambition and talent, and that Art is seldom as interesting as Life. It has a cool, jazzy score, and it works its magic on you almost in spite of itself. You won’t be surprised by how it all turns out, and ….
SPOILER ALERT!! Highlight below to read
I think Keaton’s character is dead all along. A quick shot of the jellyfish washed up on the beach hints that he didn’t make it out of the Pacific, and the entire film may be his final thoughts as he’s drowning.