Birdman (2014) (R)

I wonder if Hitchcock, in his wildest sexual fantasies while filming "Rope" ever thought of something as incredibly technical as Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance". It's crafted by a critics' darling who takes his canvas and uses it against himself, for the art and preservation of film and ideas...and it's also about him himself.
The film is rife with references to pop culture which sort of distends the feeling of fantasy that those moments don't encompass, it's confusing from an emotional stand-point from the beginning. "Birdman" is magic meets (to borrow a phrase from the movie itself) "super realism" and we can see our main character's facade start to crumble and Iñárritu begin to take his place in both aspects of the character. The movie is about the preservation of a name, self-preservation into infamy or fame...whichever will be more influential on the years to come. For me, "Birdman" plays (hah, punny) as a movie encircling a plethora of ideas that never even get fully realized. It dissolves into love letters to cinema, scathing hatred of the machine of Hollywood, and a kind of mockery that is itself detrimental to the movie because it knifes its own beating heart.
The rising star of the movie itself is Emmanuel Lubeski who as director of photography has made his name known to the world. Although his collaborations with Terrence Malick have been unloved for far too long, his branching out into "popular" cinema has gained him a following that is rightly deserved. For in "Birdman" he is pushed to the limit, but he doesn't falter and the result is almost too beautiful to look at, the film's highest achievement is how it is portrayed and not what it says...which brings us to a large problem.
Iñárritu is, by this time in his career, one of the most well-respected directors and writers in the business. He makes Oscar worthy pictures and fosters award grabbing performances from all of his cast—he is no stranger to the limelight of applause. He is a master of ideas and "philosophical bullshit" (as one of his characters would tell us) but in a narrative form, he struggles so greatly that it's only on his intellect that his movies can stand. "Birdman" can be seen as a culmination of this for it not only presents a glorious and terribly original movie; but it also manages to demand something of itself that it cannot deliver. It's hateful, loving, moving, depressing, percussive, masterful, and also lackluster; but it is never dull and never lets you think for a second that you are in control.
The movie begins with Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) putting on a play. This man saw success in his glory days as a 90s superhero called Birdman, something that has branded him ever since. Dying to break the mold of his typecast, he has written, produced, directed, and is acting in a play set for Broadway. The film opens on one of the dress rehearsals and takes us up through opening night with literally next to no camera breaks in between. It's a faux feeling of real time that suspends us in Iñárritu's world.
Riggan is having personal problems with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) as well as with his actors. One of his lead characters isn't what Riggan wants, so an "accident" happens and in comes a big-name-super-snob-ultra-pain-in-the-ass actor Mike (Edward Norton) who is involved with one of the other actors, Lesley (Naomi Watts). The power dynamic shifts immediately and Riggan is put as the lesser educated actor while Mike assumes the role (literally) of the veteran determined to bring authenticity to the stage as a matter of personal triumph.
But the problems with Mike begin to bud as the actor becomes too outrageous with his stakes in the process, to the point where he jeopardizes and ultimately destroys one of the preview showings and nearly topples the next one.
Riggan starts to be put on edge by his attorney Jake (Zach Galifianakis) and his daughter's post-rehab behavior, all this time trying to place the legacy of his superhero movies behind him...which is incredibly hard since he has a little voice in his head that overpowers everything else named Birdman. His former self haunts him literally and we begin to see the damage of a success obsessed mind. But the tensions reach their breaking point and Riggan is pushed to a mental state beyond even himself as the movie spirals into an inferno of well-timed cues and altruistic ideals.
Narratively, the movie suffers. One of the most key moments that the movie positively hinges on is that a highly influential critic (played perfectly by Lindsay Duncan) is given all the power. It's her voice against everyone else's. If she hates a play, it will die in the theater. Her power is too much and although it's a terrific performance by Duncan (my personal favorite of the movie), it's no surprise that she is the embodiment of the conflict.
Iñárritu's success is mostly because of Lubeski. Because without the amazing trick of "hey look, it's one continuous shot" I don't think the movie would float as much as it does.
That all being said, the movie is amazing. I only am picking apart its faults because it was so close to perfection that the ideas are what Iñárritu tries to use to push "Birdman" into something transcendent.
Here we see a trigger happy "snob gun". Iñárritu fires the right bullets at the right time for a critic to think "this must be intellectually stimulating" instead of "this guy has no clue what to do here". The targets include vast self-references, unexplained forces, women who kiss women, and seeing double.
"Birdman" is a great movie and one that will reveal incredible gems on repeated viewing. It's a testament to how far film has come; but it also inhibits itself by being so hateful to its brethren. It wants to be its theater critic, to have all the power. Here Iñárritu is both Riggan and God; but his earthly creations don't reflect what I think he was trying to accomplish.
In the end, I see "Birdman" as a highly successful movie that breaks boundaries and sets new limits for how critics can use different fancy words to extol its virtues. It is a movie designed for snobs, not popular audience...which is probably why it has 9 deserved Oscar nods.
But Hitchcock might have had something on this, because "Rope" was made for both the critical and popular audience...Hitchcock was about the art of watching and Iñárritu is about the art of creating something original. That's the key difference and that's what makes "Birdman" so frustratingly pretentious.
But it's also a work that will be studied for years and years to come. One might call it an instant masterpiece.

Score: ★★★½

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