BIRDMAN OR is an incredible movie on a technical and craft type level. It’s like a play, really. Mostly dialogue and centered around one building, but it’s also very cinematic because it’s photographed ROPE-style, as if the whole movie is one continuous shot. Of course it’s not, that’s all an illusion, and it’s not even supposed to mimic real time. Sometimes it will pull up to the sky and it will become day or night before it comes back down, or the events within the shot will make it clear that time has passed. One second they’re in a rehearsal for a play, the next there’s an entire audience there. Pretty tricky stuff pulled off with the genius of director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki, expanding on the long takes he did with Alfonso Cuaron in CHILDREN OF MEN and GRAVITY. The director/co-writer this time is their buddy Alejandro González Iñárritu (BABEL).
It’s the story of Hollywood actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton, JACKIE BROWN), who was a serious actor but became known mainly for playing a super hero in a trilogy of movies in the early ’90s. Now he’s trying to adapt a Raymond Carver story for the stage. He’s having all kinds of problems right before the first preview, while also dealing with emotional crises about his lagging fame, his perceived lack of respect as an artist, his failed marriage (Amy Ryan plays his ex-wife, still in his life), the crappy job he’s done as a father (Emma Stone plays his recovering junkie daughter/assistant, who is constantly annoyed with him and her job). So we, as the point of view of the camera, hover there and watch his rehearsals, his arguments, we fly through the labyrinthine back halls of the theater, into the dressing rooms, onto the scaffolding, onto the stage, outside into crowded Times Square. There is crying, fighting, fucking.
Meanwhile Riggan seems to be losing it, he occasionally hears the Beetlejuice-like voice of his movie character egging him on and finds that he can move objects with his mind and even fly. In fact we first meet him levitating in a yoga pose, but still managing to look pathetic in his slightly loose tighty whiteys and dingy theater-basement apartment that the narration tells us “smells like balls.”
It’s an impressive magic trick on the part of these actors, having to hit so many emotions and so many marks, as well as play their characters in the play, sometimes badly, sometimes brilliantly. Naomi Watts (as Riggan’s lead actress) is once again called upon for her ability to use two acting styles in a movie, one of them less believable than the other. (And also to kiss a woman again.) And Edward Norton (THE BOURNE LEGACY) is the respected, impossible to work with stage actor. So make of that casting what you will. Probly a coincidence. I think it said so at the end, any similarity between one guy being a dick and the character being a dick is a coincidence and there’s no way anyone could’ve known.
(I’m not saying he’s a dick, that’s just his reputation, I wouldn’t know if it’s true. I just know I liked Eric Bana’s Hulk better and I’m scared to tell him.)
And there’s other clever shit too, like the score, which mostly consists of feverish improvised jazz drumming by a guy named Antonio Sanchez. A couple times Riggan walks right past him, just sitting there performing the score on the street or in a hallway. Sort of like in I’M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKA when they’re followed around by the bands playing their theme songs.
As a movie it’s just firing all its filmatic engines, it’s really good. But in my opinion the ideas beneath the surface are not nearly as smart as they’re probly intended to be. It has the feel of satire, but like so many Hollywood-self parodies it’s mostly saying obvious shit and doesn’t even feel entirely accurate. The movie actor wants to be seen as a serious artist but is really just doing it for his ego, the theater actor is a crazy pretentious asshole, the critic is cruel and unfair and full of shit and given way too much power, and they all have a little bit of a point but mostly are dipshits and they all hate each other. Then the daughter constantly looks at her phone and preaches the gospel of Twitter and Youtube which is her only measure of cultural relevance. The movie seems afraid to write off what she’s saying, because it’s made by adults and they want to get it, they don’t want to be too old to understand all this internet and electrical what not. But then – surprise surprise! – Riggan becomes one o’ them viral sensations they got now when he does something crazy. Take that, social media age!
And just for us oldsters there’s something tragic that happens and the old guard read a bunch of deepness into it that’s not really there. Such a huge problem in the arts, thank god we got these dog-licking-its-balls Hollywood-on-Hollywood movies to set things straight.
One thing I kept think about was the casting of Keaton. Obviously there is some meta type shit going on here because in real life he played Batman around the same time as his character played this stupid Birdman character. Riggan seems to have some guilt and disgust about all the best movie actors of today playing super heroes, an age kicked off by his movies. I don’t think this is Keaton’s real attitude, but it does line up with his history. His Batman movies were the beginning of the modern comic book movie. There’s actually not another actor that did that in that era, this could only be Michael Keaton.
And yet look at him. He has shown no sign of struggling to regain relevance and respect under the shadow of Batman. In fact, Batman gave him enough money to just kick back and not work for years and years. And now that he’s been showing up in movies again these last couple years it’s like an old friend is back. It’s “Oh good, Michael Keaton decided to act again,” not “I’m glad they’re finally giving him another shot, he deserves it!”
And while I’m sure people come up to him on the streets all the time and ask him if he’s ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight I don’t think he’s stuck being mainly thought of as Batman. He definitely doesn’t have journalists asking him if he’s gonna do another Batman movie. His own persona is as iconic as his masked character and other people are more associated with Batman now than he is. If it’s been a problem for him he doesn’t let it show.
I don’t know, maybe this is a weird complaint, but it bothers me that there is exactly one actor in the world who had a career like this character, and yet he did not have a career at all like this character. Doesn’t that mean that it’s not accurate satire? It’s not like it’s making fun of a broad category of actors who kicked off the modern comic book movie. I guess it’s the satire of what would’ve happened if Michael Keaton was a totally different type of guy who didn’t turn down BATMAN FOREVER. And it’s about time somebody took that non-existent alternate dimension sellout version of Michael Keaton down a notch, right?
Which reminds me, let me tell you the specific reason why I put off seeing this movie until now. I was actually really anticipating it before it came out, and then during the opening week I happened to overhear a guy recommending it to his friend. “It’s an attack on the fame culture, and the blockbuster culture,” he said. “On the whole American film culture, really. And it needed to be said.”
Of course he meant that as high praise, but it was the first indication to me that the movie was gonna be kinda on the dumb-guy-who-thinks-he’s-really-smart side. And it is, so I’m glad I had accidental forewarning from this guy who wants to blow the lid off of American film culture for having the gall to make popular super hero movies. The swine.
(To be fair though I don’t think that guy’s take on the movie is totally accurate. The people doing the Raymond Carver play don’t come off looking any more deep than whoever made the bird monster movie. It’s really an attack on everybody trying to make art, because they all suck.)
Anyway, I still I enjoyed it. It’s not a work of genius, but it’s definitely ingenious. It’s worth, you know, taking a peck at or whatever. It’s for the birds… but also some humans!
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.