Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, February 5, 2015

Recent Watches: Birdman (2014)

A little more then a year ago, I included “Birdman” on my list of most anticipated films of the-then new year. At the time, I was expecting a more straight-forward satire of superheroes and our culture’s current obsession with them. By the time “Birdman” started rolling into theaters, it became apparent this was not the kind of movie “Birdman” was. Despite reviews that can best be described as “divisive,” it’s not surprising that they film garnished some attention from the Academy. It’s a flashy story with an actor primed for a come-back in a personal, much-hyped performances. That “Birdman” is slowly becoming the front-runner for Best Picture, however, is a surprise. Should it win, I know a few people that will be seriously pissed off about that.

Riggan Thomson, in addition to having a stupid name, is an actor who once starred in a series of successful superhero movies presumably based on everyone’s favorite avian-humanoid lawyer. After purposely walking away from the billion-dollar franchise, he’s been struggling to find work. In a desperate plea for respectability, Riggan has written, directed, and starred in a stage production of a Raymond Carver story. The production is fraught. The play's secondary star is difficult to work with. The production is being sued. Riggan’s recovering party girl daughter is sticking around, causing trouble. The previews are troubled. A critic promises to sink the play with bad reviews. Most prominently, the actor is struggling with his own problems, fear of failure, despair, imagining that he has psychic powers, and is being haunted by the voice of his most famous character.

Above all else, “Birdman” has one major thing going for it. The casting of Michael Keaton in the part is a deliriously meta element. Yes, movie, we all get it. Doesn’t this eerily mirror Keaton’s own post-“Batman” career? And Keaton’s wink-wink casting is mostly besides the point. He acts his ass off here. He rants and raves but in a way that’s more honest and emotionally worthy then the movie around him. He plays an ugly, twisted soul desperately begging for one last chance at artistic fulfillment, constantly hounded by the spectre of, not success, but compromise. The character’s unexplained magical powers are eye-rolling. Yet Keaton makes the most of it. When Riggan trashes a room with his inexplicable telekinetic powers, Keaton makes it an extension of his inner rage. When he imagines scenes from a “Birdman” movie breaking out on a busy New York street, it’s because he’s being tempted by the cozy pleasure of not-trying and phoning-it-in. When he soars around the city, it’s because he’s decided to try anyway. These things shouldn’t work. They wouldn’t at all if Keaton wasn’t investing as much emotion, heart and soul into this performances as his character does into the play-within-the-movie.

This is good because much of the rest of “Birdman” is hopelessly trite. It announces its obtuse pretensions by amending a fallaciously punctuated subtitle, “or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” to the main title. In the early third, Riggan damns the Hollywood system because every actor he likes has hooked their horse to a superhero franchise. He takes pot-shots at Robert Downey Jr. A press meeting goes horribly wrong, as the movie takes easy pot-shots at pretentious interviewers and tabloid journalism. The film assumes that movies, especially blockbusters, are soulless corporate entities while live stage acting is real art. (A movie making this statement is dubious enough already but it also shows a lot of ignorance on the filmmaker’s behalf, since mainstream blockbusters are actually getting bolder, weirder, and more sophisticated.) The movie’s absolute contempt for superhero cinema is so persistent that the film ends with its protagonist telling his superhero alter-ego to fuck off.

The most wretched element of the plot is the Evil Critic. Jesus, aren’t we over this cliché yet? Here’s another movie presenting critics as, not real people but, cartoonish villains who revile in crushing people’s dreams for petty reasons, instead of just being normal human beings who have opinions and actually enjoy most things. That old, spoiled chestnut of “Critics are just jealous because they can’t create true art!” is even trotted out. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is making the same statements as M. Night Shyamalan and doing it with the same amount of subtly and grace.

Despite its quasi-indie budget and magic-realism diversions, “Birdman” is still a Big Movie that screams its ideas in Big Ways. In-between all the noise, there are a few effectively quiet moments. This is mostly thanks to Edward Norton and Emma Stone. (Both, no doubt intentionally, graduates from superhero franchises.) Emma Stone, as a Lindsay Lohan-type, gets to scream with the rest of the cast. However, when the film devotes itself to her quiet despairs, it comes off as almost humanistic. Stone especially has great chemistry with Norton. Norton plays a method actor notorious for taking over production, so basically an exaggerated version of himself. He probably has the most unearned Big Acting in the movie. Like Stone, when given a chance to quietly emote in a genuine, earned fashion, he actually acts pretty well.

Has any movie ever actually been shot in one take? I don’t think it’s even possible. “Birdman” is another movie that attempts to trick the audience into thinking this, despite the not-quite invisible cuts are evident to even the novice movie nerd. Despite its obvious artifice, you still have to admire Inarritu’s craft. “Birdman” looks good, if nothing else, and is a well-assembled film. The script is sledgehammer obvious but a handful of lyrically created moments still exist within “Birdman.” I’m not a fan of the film’s chaotic jazz score though, which is frequently distracting. Especially since “Whiplash” just showed me last night how to do a jazz score right.

I do not despise “Birdman,” though I perfectly understand why some do. It’s an easy movie to hate, as its ideas are so juvenile, maudlin, self-serious, and throbbingly lacking in self awareness. However, it is well act and pretty well made. Will it wind up sweeping the Academy Awards? I hope not, as better films are nominated. Will it surprise me if it does? Not really but I sincerely hope Oscar can see through the movie’ stuffy pretensions and ham-fisted concepts. Unless Academy voters consider ignorance an unexpected virtue too. [5/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

Good review. You hit it right on the head. Here's what I wrote a few weeks ago in my own little review I posted on

I'll take some advice offered up by this movie. Critics can't do, which is why they're critical, so I'll keep it short. I could never make a movie. But I do have the capacity to either like or dislike a movie after watching it. "Birdman" featured the most pretentious, self-absorbed jerks I think I've ever encountered. I hated every character in this movie. Well, Michael Keaton's character was pathetic but likable. This pretty much confirmed everything I thought Broadway actors were like. If this isn't an accurate portrayal of stage actors, then why paint the characters in such a fashion?

I got sick of the camerawork. The extended shot silliness limited the movie and what it could offer the viewer.

I've read largely positive feedback from people that I normally trust regarding "Birdman" and I'm at a loss. 3/10