A lot of people, in dismissing this movie, have sniffed, “Well, it’s about actors, and who cares about actors?”
This is very shortsighted and narrow-minded indeed, and I hasten to remind everyone that actors are very much like human beings, and we can learn much from their struggles.
There’s gotta be something very close to irony in the fact that people will watch all kinds of movies about killers, pedophiles, gangsters, and the worst scum known to man, but get their hackles up when there’s a movie about actors. (All those other characters are played by actors, y’know?) And, for all the self-congratulatory encomiums actors give each other, when they make movies about themselves, they’re almost always about what a messed up lot they are.
I don’t know. It can be endearing, I think, and I think that’s the case here in Inarritu’s (21 Grams, Babel) Birdman, the tale of an actor (Michael Keaton) who gave up an easy paycheck to pursue art, and face-planted. Now nearing what may be the end of his career, he’s sunk everything into his own Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”.
Of course, many actors end up in a defining role that they can never escape, but in the case of Riggan Thomson, his meal-ticket superhero Birdman doesn’t only haunt his career, it lives inside his head in constant criticism of everything the guy does.
His life is, of course, a big ol’ mess. His girlfriend/co-star is pregnant (maybe), his estranged daughter/assistant hates him, his ex-wife actually seems to love him but knows better than to get mixed up with him again, and worst of all his male co-star can’t act. Strike that, worst of all, when a freak accident takes his co-star out, his other female co-star recommends her husband to take his place, and the unstable, arrogant jerk may be a better actor than he is—with a better understanding of the material!
His agent seems to be the only guy who really has a handle on him.
The icing on the cake? Riggan is convinced he caused the freak accident that took out his co-star, and is given to frequent bouts of telekinetic tantrums.
I had my doubts about this going in. I’m not a big fan of Babel—I didn’t really get it, and felt that this film might end up being pretentiously ponderous, or maybe ponderously pretentious, but it’s not at all ponderous.
I could say that it might’ve been interesting, actually, to make the characters themselves less interesting and focus on the struggle of trying to get a Broadway show on, but nobody does that sort of thing any more.
And while it’s fair to call it a “character study”, that doesn’t really do it justice. Much like Whiplash, despite a relatively sedate setting, there is quite a bit of suspense and excitement in this film: Will Riggan “sell out”? Will the play be successful? Will it be any good? Will Riggan be any good? Will Mike do something crazy to screw it up? Will Riggan do something crazy to try to get attention? Is the whole thing just rigged against our heroes in the first place?
And what the hell is going on with the whole Birdman thing, anyway?
I was deeply concerned, by the third act, about what would happen to Riggan. Even though his messes seemed entirely self-made, I wanted him to be redeemed even though he was an actor. I think we can all agree that this is a considerable accomplishment on Inarritu and Keaton’s part.
Except at the beginning and the end, this movie has no cuts, a la Rope. The Flower spotted a few of the tricks used to create that effect but what was interesting to me was that: 1) The constant tracking and tight shots made everything feel intimate; 2) No cuts is way less jarring than rapid-fire mega-cuts. Honestly, we were well into the first act before I noticed that’s what was going on, whereas (for me, anyway) constant rapid cuts call attention to themselves and away from the actual story.
Obviously the acting is good. Keaton is still Keaton, 30 years past Night Shift. Norton is always great (well, maybe not in that romcom he did with Jenna Elfman). Naomi Watts and Emma Stone put in heartfelt, memorable performances as well. You’ll forget Andrea Riseborough (Never Let Me Go, Shadow Dancer) has an English accent.
The big surprise is Zach Galifianakis, who has lost weight and looks absolutely nothing like himself (as we know him) despite, well, being just a skinnier version of himself. I mean, he didn’t shave his beard or put on an accent or even dress remarkably different. He just acted. And, I guess, he acted far differently, staying away from his comedic ticks and mostly keeping his voice out of that “I’m so whiny it’s funny” range.
The music is entirely ambient, mostly a guy playing drums (sometimes in oddly inappropriate places) and a stagey orchestral pit kind of thing.
The Flower, who is increasingly selective about her moviegoing, approved. The Boy gets a peculiarly satisfied air when we see multiple high-quality movies back-to-back, and since we had just seen Whiplash, he was feeling pretty good.
If you’re not allergic to actors, and stories about actors, we all recommend.