BIRDMAN, or: The Hardest Battle You’ll Ever Fight

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Egos are all over the place in BIRDMAN, the new film from deconstructionist director Alejandro González Iñárritu. The focus is upon the journey of our protagonist, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), an actor known primarily for starring as Birdman in a trio of successful superhero films twenty years before. Feeling that he was not being taken seriously as an actor, he walked away from his golden goose (no pun intended). Two decades later and every studio has a comic book franchise they are nurturing. Even the respected actors whose legacies Riggan felt he was tarnishing have all signed up for one or more blockbusters in a market dominated by superheroes.

Once larger than life, Riggan couldn’t feel any lower. He is about to mount an ambitious and narcissistic comeback by starring in, writing, producing and directing a play based on the stories of Raymond Carver. He scrutinizes every facet of this production and seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Nothing makes him happy. The play isn’t the ultimate statement he feels it should be, nor does he feel capable of delivering that statement to begin with. His daughter Sam (Emma Stone) just got out of rehab and deals with a dozen self-destructive impulses while working as an assistant to her estranged father. His old lead is suing him for an injury that occurred during rehearsal. His new lead Mike (Edward Norton) is an underground theater sensation that is all intensity and ferocity, though his genuineness is still up for debate.

If that weren’t enough, Riggan is hearing voices and hence, so do we. The voice belongs to his abandoned alter ego Birdman. The cowled figure gets into his head, talking in a thick raspy voice and telling Riggan what a worthless fraud he is. “They don’t know what you’re capable of,” Birdman tells Riggan. Nobody does, including Riggan. The actor seems to able to levitate and make things move just by thinking about them, and the film doesn’t give us any clear answers as to whether or not this is merely a symptom of Thomson’s emotional break.

Keaton is the perfect person to play our beleaguered hero. Naturally, the casting is a bit self-referential. While Keaton has stated publically that he is nothing like Riggan Thomson in real life (thank God for that), the fact is that like Riggan, Keaton starred as dark, cowled, raspy-voiced superhero, the one largely responsible for the massive renaissance of comic book films.

But more than that is the fact that Keaton remains one of our most underrated actors, and that’s not a recent development either. I can still remember the scrutiny Keaton was under when he was cast in BATMAN. I knew Keaton would be able to tackle the challenges of the role. Not only had he proven himself in various comedies, but he gave a standout performance in the 1988 film, CLEAN AND SOBER. That CLEAN AND SOBER still remains an obscurity is one of the more puzzling critical injustices I’ve seen in my cinematic upbringing. For the 25 years since, Keaton has continued to prove himself. Sometimes, they are in standout roles (THE PAPER, GAME 6) and sometimes he has merely been the best thing in inferior motion pictures (THE WRONG GUYS, ROBOCOP). As for JACK FROST, we’ll just pretend that never happened.

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With BIRDMAN (full title: BIRDMAN, OR THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE – Hey, co-opting that kind of pretentious headline is my schtick!), he gives another incredible performance. He is full of self-loathing and yet we can sense the magic within him. It would be too easy to be an unhinged beast on screen. Instead, Keaton imbues his character with so many subtleties and nuances that we never stop rooting for him, even when he’s at his most immature, reactionary or delusional. Keaton has been owed recognition from his peers for decades and BIRDMAN is the perfect time for him to get it. In case I haven’t made myself perfectly clear – Keaton deserves to win the Academy Award for Best Actor and to pass him by would be a crime.

Iñárritu’s film is an examination of the ego, and thus it uses the most classically egotistical industry – show business – as its backdrop. The main focus is on Riggan, a man who feels disgust for the bullies, the shallow yes men, the cynics and the oblivious nonentities that surround him. And yet, he feels a need to please them. His ex-wife (Naomi Watts) tells him, “You confuse love for adoration,” but Riggan will take what he get. Moreover, as much as he criticizes the failings of the general public, he feels intense personal shame that he cannot meet their level of personal fulfillment.

The rest of the cast are dealing with their own problems. An actress in Riggan’s stage production (Andrea Riseborough) engaged in an ill-advised affair with her co-star and director. He isn’t cruel to her, though he does remain emotionally unavailable. “Why don’t I have any self-respect?” she screams, only to receive an answer from a colleague, “Honey, you’re an actress.”

Mike is the new actor in Riggan’s play. He’s a darling of the theater scene, but he takes himself too seriously, even by the standards of Method acting. He drinks and lashes out at people for not being as committed as he is. But as everyone stands in awe for what they perceive to be artistic commitment, one wonders if Mike is simply filled with self-punishment. He always seems to be wrestling with himself, as if his skin is a straitjacket from which he’ll never break free. He tells Sam that the only time he’s completely truthful is when he’s on stage. But these are also the moments when he spends all his energy trying to become someone else. Perhaps that is the ultimate truth.

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BIRDMAN also brings up the question of which art is worthwhile. Riggan is seen as a washed-up Hollywood actor, worse yet one who starred in superhero films. This Los Angeles actor is counted short and counted out by every New York personality he encounters. Mike accuses him of being a phony whenever he feels threatened from without and within. A theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) openly states that she looks forward to giving Riggan a bad review. She is personally offended that someone as low as a Hollywood franchise actor would dare take up residence on Broadway with a self-serving stage production, thus sullying what she sees as a more pure form of art. I hear this argument a lot, that film is artificial and theater is more genuine. It is a foolish argument. In film, there are various people who do the same thing over and over again until they decide on one unified vision to present to the world, with the hopes that they have created a worthwhile piece of art. In theater, there are various people who do the same thing over and over again, night after night, and present one temporary vision to the audience that has gathered, with the hopes that they have created a worthwhile piece of art. Whether it works or not, they will have to do it all over again and hopefully repeat the successes and get rid of the failures of what has come before. There are differences in the two art forms, but as you can see, there are plenty of similarities. Nothing, not money, celebrity nor acclaim makes either art form more valid than the other.

While we’re on the subject, there is also a lot of criticism directed at the criticism of art. And it’s an argument worth having. Riggan wisely calls the critic on her unprofessionalism, grabbing her notes and pointing out how she hasn’t said anything of substance. How could she, when she has yet to see the play and can only comment on her preconceived notions and prejudices? Actors, writers, producers and directors have all been condemning of critics. Sometimes, this is warranted. There is a sense of unprofessionalism in several established critics, those who take too much delight in writing scathing reviews. Words have power and while it takes a lifetime to create, it only takes a moment to destroy. That is the great sin of destruction in all its forms. These critics should absolutely be taken to task. However, the idea that publicly sharing an opinion is somehow a disservice to the industry is ridiculous. Especially when ideally that opinion is fair, thought out and rooted in basic knowledge of the craft. The most common complaint is that those who can’t create criticize. Sour grapes, I’m afraid. I don’t know how to fix the plumbing in my house either, but I know when it’s not doing what it’s supposed to.

Iñárritu is one of those directors who seems uninterested in directing any film that can’t serve as some sort of conscious deconstruction. This has been both a blessing and a curse for him. 21 GRAMS was a wonderfully acted and intriguing piece that forced the viewer to put the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle, and for little reason. BABEL was a much greater success as it also played around with time, with a series of non-sequential stories that intersected in surprising ways. BIRDMAN is a piece of deconstructionism as well, this time of the psyche. The camera glides around from scene to scene, much of the action appearing as if it were shot in one take. It wasn’t, as is evidenced not so much in the transitions but in the way that characters seemingly occupy different spaces at the same time. It’s a wonderful effect, and one not done for the typical reasons of showboating. Iñárritu isn’t asking us to be impressed by his film school training or the fact that he can block a shot. Rather, it’s to take us on a spiritual and psychological odyssey, as if we were floating through the theater like a spirit looking in as these people react to and continue to experience the changes that will define them.

Aside from the occasional classical swell that signals a transition into the fantasy world of the stage, the soundtrack is largely made up of jazz drumming, courtesy of Antonio Sanchez. It ratchets up the tension in several key spots and also demonstrates Riggan’s fragmented state of being. Even the credits flicker on and off like synapses trying desperately to fire. Iñárritu plays around with our perceptions and this isn’t always a good thing. Sometimes, the effect is either a little too soothing or too jarring, depending on the action. It doesn’t have quite the rhythm it should. Fortunately, this is a minor and infrequent bump in the road.

A sense of dread permeates this dark journey only to take us by the hand and tell us about the amazing things we all have to offer. This is the amazing thing about BIRDMAN. It’s a film that is never cloying or patronizing as it finds a radiant light in each of its characters, no matter what kind of emotional baggage they carry.  Highly Recommended.

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RATING SYSTEM AND CRITERIA

  • What was the film trying to accomplish and how well did it meet those goals? 
  • In addition to (or sometimes despite) that, how does the film hold up on sheer entertainment value?

The Best – Reserved for the absolute cream of the crop.
Highly Recommended – Very good. Far better than your typical film and one that I will remember for some time.
Recommended – Just what it says. This is a good film and earns a recommendation. Don’t think that because it’s not one of the top two categories that these films aren’t worth your time. The “recommended” tag is a winner and nothing to sneer at.
Barely Recommended – The middle of the road. Those films where I didn’t feel it was a complete waste of time, but it didn’t set my world on fire either. Not bad, but leaves me feeling bored and/or apathetic.
Disappointing – Close but no cigar. Does a few things right but is ultimately a whole lot of wasted potential. Not recommended.
Awful – A bad movie. Pure and simple. Not worth your time.
The Worst – The Britta Perry of ratings, though not as entertaining. The bottom of the barrel.

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