CAPSULE: BIRDMAN (2014)

Birdman or: (The Unexpected Virtues of Ignorance)

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DIRECTED BY: Alejandro González Iñárritu

FEATURING: , Emma Stone, Edward Norton, , , Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan

PLOT: Aging actor Riggan Thomas, who became a superstar anchoring a blockbuster superhero franchise in the 1990s, writes, directs and stars in a Broadway show in an attempt to be taken seriously as an artist; unfortunately, he’s simultaneously battling the voices in his head, as his old alter-ego presses him to sign up to do “Birdman 4.”

Still from Birdman (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Birdman is a movie that adopts a weird methodology to tell its story, but it’s only weird by the diminished standard of movies that will be nominated for multiple Academy Awards.

COMMENTS: Birdman starts with a strange conceit. It’s about a former superstar actor, star of a superhero tentpole franchise, trying to be taken seriously as an artist by producing, writing, starring and directing a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver short story. To throw a wrench into things, the actor is also insane, believing that he has telekinetic powers, and he hallucinates that his Birdman alter-ego is taunting him for his artistic pretensions. So, given that this is your story, why not sweeten the weirdness by scoring the film to solo jazz percussion and shooting the entire movie in what appears to be one unbroken take?

Birdman is not like any other film you’re likely to see this year, or anytime soon. It is a movie that (on the surface) insists that plays are more authentic artistic expressions than movies. It’s an extremely theatrical movie, one that’s bursting with smart dialogue, numerous subplots, and memorable monologues. It’s no wonder that a top-notch cast was attracted to the project. Most notable is Edward Norton, in a flamboyant role as an arrogant actor with so much talent he’s compelled to sabotage himself just to keep things interesting. Keeping pace is Emma Stone as Riggan’s wayward daughter, just out of rehab and more adept at spotting others’ b.s. than her own. Even Zach Galifianakis impresses in a rare straight-man turn as Riggan’s lawyer. Still, Keaton, willing to let the camera linger on his thinning hair and explore his deepening crow’s feet, carries an impressive load of the film’s ambition on his shoulders. Keaton, Norton and Stone will all be remembered come awards season.

The cinematography (by Emmanuel Lubezki, coming off an Oscar for his work on Gravity) plays as big a role as any of the stars. Unlike long-take record-holder Russian Ark, Birdman is not really a one-take movie, since it has at least a couple of invisible edits (as did Rope). The extended tracking shots, which wander around the labyrinthine theater ducking into various dressing rooms and rehearsal spaces, are nonetheless highly impressive. The long-take gimmick is impeccably realized, but it isn’t really formally necessary. This would essentially be the same movie if it were conventionally edited. You could argue that the one-take technique gives the camera a “gliding” sensibility (like a bird), or that it mimics the dangerous unpredictability of live theater, but I think the real reason the filmmakers did it is simply because it was difficult to do. Like art itself, its very unnecessariness is its justification.

It’s hard to believe that many people will find Riggan Thomas’ struggle—whether to turn his back on his colossal financial success and create something meaningful, or just give the idiots the pabulum they crave—very relatable. The implied insults to fans of superhero movies are a bit much, as is the strawman of a snobby theater critic who plans to shut down the show—sight-unseen—simply because it has the stink of Hollywood about it. (Pre-emptive shots at critics are almost always cringeworthy, and Birdman really should be above such shenanigans).  Birdman is Hollywood insiders navel-gazing, hang-wringing, and soul-searching about how to be taken seriously as artists, sure. But it’s also the best Hollywood has to offer: it’s unpredictable, bold, and unapologetic, manned by a completely committed cast and crew working at their collective peaks. By doing so, they ensure that they are taken seriously as artists, even though their movie has exploding helicopters and a guy gliding through digital clouds in a molded plastic bird costume.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a near-seamless concoction of onscreen surrealism that would make the likes of Terry Gilliam, Michel Gondry, and Spike Jonze green with envy.”–Gary Dowell, Dark Horizons (contemporaneous)

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