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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Review: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

The premise is almost too good to be true, like a crazy elevator pitch from a buzzed armchair critic five beers in. Give me Michael Keaton as "The Washed Up Hollywood Actor," the one who never got over being Bird{Bat}man. Give me Edward Norton as "The Don’t Hire Him Because He’s Difficult Actor," the one who rewrites scripts because he thinks he knows better than everyone else. Give me a character trying really hard to impress people, but let him be in a movie that doesn’t give a fuck about what anyone else thinks.

That type of movie could never get made, except it somehow did. And it might be naïve or innocent to think this could be a film that is neither concerned with profit nor praise, but if there was ever such a movie, it would probably be this one.  Present-day Hollywood is a road built out of big-budget franchises and super hero films, each mile paved with the latest sequel, prequel, origin story, or reboot, already mapped out decades into our future.  It’s hard not to obsess over it and hate it at the same time. Birdman lives in that feeling.

Pitting Actor vs. Celebrity, Theater vs. Hollywood, and Art vs. Entertainment, Birdman feels, more than anything else, like an honest movie. That’s not to say this is a movie that teaches you some sort of intangible truth or takes a unilateral stand against Hollywood in favor of “true art” – in the end the theater snobs or critics who praise them and eschew celebrity worship are as ignorant as anyone else is in this film. But this feels like an honest movie in the sense that it comes from a real place of self-loathing and insecurity. A conflict that this director and these writers have probably actually felt, rather than a conflict that was manufactured to explain why some guy would try to blow up the Earth.  

The actual antagonist of the move, arguably, is that of Michael Keaton’s alter-ego, Birdman (Keaton’s character has a name, and it’s Riggan, but I’m not even going to use it here). Birdman whispers into the back of Keaton’s mind throughout the film, in a gruff Batman-y voice, tearing him down and exposing his worst inner fears. Keaton struggles in the wake of that character and that voice, trying to either silence it or make peace with it. Though this isn’t at all in the style of a “Mockumentary,” Birdman catches that same level of honest exposure; the kind of work that shows you, in its quietest moments, someone trying way too hard to be liked.

There are a lot of good performances in this film. Keaton’s is the most exemplary, and one of those rare cases where the actor’s personal life and experiences give a weight to the movie that no one else ever could (see Mikey Rourke in The Wrestler). Edward Norton and Emma Stone are also standouts. The MVPs of this film, though, are likely Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.  

Iñárritu achieved fame for much more dramatic fare, including 21 Grams, Amores Perros, and Biutiful. Dark comedy looks good on him, and Birdman is arguably even better than his previous dramatic works, if for no other reason than because it manages to capture the same level of sincerity while still being enthralling. Lubezki is well-known for his work on Gravity, which earned him an Oscar last year for cinematography. In Birdman, the camera crawls, winding through passages and rooms to create what feels like one long, fluid take. The setup was painstaking and required incredibly expert choreography from everyone involved, yet it looks completely natural and effortless. It’s an essential component to the success of the film, which always feels fast-paced and vibrant as a result.

At the end of the day, Birdman feels like that old, cool teacher you had in school – the one who actually didn’t care how he dressed or what you thought, at all, because he was just doing his own thing. This is a movie that is sure enough in itself that it doesn’t pander to any particular audience or market or segment, and it doesn’t push as hard as it can to make you feel a prescribed set of emotions. It’s just that crazy movie that you can’t believe exists, but you’re grateful it does. 

Consensus: For Immediate Consumption

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