Thursday, January 15, 2015

Happy Oscar Nomination Day: Birdman!

The Good: Great acting, Moments of plot and character
The Bad: Ending guts the realism of the film.
The Basics: Birdman is not the worst nominee for Best Picture, but the hype surrounding the indie film seems to be working more than the film itself.

One of the nice things about Awards Season is that it encourages me to watch any number of films that I did not get around to watching the rest of the year. As Oscar Nominations have been released today and I go through the lists, I find that I am woefully unprepared for this year’s Awards Season. In fact, for someone with a Best Picture Project (check that out here!), which has me watching the Best Picture Oscar winner each year, I find myself terribly out of step this year. Of the eight Oscar Nominees for Best Picture, I had only seen one before today! In a year when cinema was pretty crappy, I should not be surprised that only one of the films nominated for Best Picture was released outside of Oscar Pandering season. But, while watching the Golden Globe presentation on Sunday, the movie that seemed most like one I might enjoy watching was Birdman.

Birdman seems, in many ways, tailor-made to its lead, Michael Keaton. Keaton’s greatest commercial popularity came when he appeared in Tim Burton’s Batman (reviewed here!) and Batman Returns (reviewed here!). While he had many other career peaks and valleys, his box office cache was highest at that time in his career. So now, more than twenty-five years later, it is easy for The Industry and moviegoers to look at the former a-lister and sarcastically call him “washed-up” or a “has been” (William Shatner has a great song on the subject!). But, Birdman does a good job of illustrating that anyone who has been has the chance to be (in the public eye) again.

A telekinetic actor who once starred in the popular Birdman movie franchise, based upon a comic book, is now attempting to launch a theatrical play. Days before the first preview, Riggan Thomson smacks Ralph, knocking him out to get the terrible actor out of the role that Riggan originated on screen. After a round of bad press, while Ralph threatens to sue the production, Riggan realizes that the “dream actor” he wants to materialize is not going to appear. Leslie, the female lead of the play, gets actor Mike Shiner to fill in for the lead. Shiner brings real talent and some creative vision to the project, despite challenging what Riggan wrote.

When the preview goes terribly, because Mike freaks out midway through, Riggan sees that his big chance to reclaim the spotlight is slipping away. His erratic girlfriend tells Riggan he is pregnant, his new star is drunk, and Riggan’s daughter, Sam, is struggling with her sobriety (and not just leaping into bed with Mike). With theater critic Tabitha Dickinson’s New York Times review hanging over their head, Riggan and Mike prepare for the second preview. While the second preview goes vastly better than the first (despite a hiccup with Mike having an erection). But as the debut of the play looms, Riggan’s personal life spirals out of control – in real life and in his own head.

Birdman is one of those films that is almost entirely undone by its last few minutes. I like a good film with a reversal, like Brazil (reviewed here!), but so many films are diminished by the reversal; Birdman is one such film. Despite Birdman peppering clues to the end at the beginning (Riggan is not actually telekinetic, for example), the cyclical “death dream”y nature of the film robs the movie of its reality and punch.

For much of the film, Birdman captivates the audience as the story of a man who is making one last gambit for success in the public eye, while plagued by the voices of self-doubt and criticism in his own head. While there might me multiple interpretations to the film, the seeds peppered throughout – and are supported by the end – lead to a climax that guts the real-world sensibilities from the movie, in favor of an end that is both more and less fantastical. Riggan is not endowed with super powers, he is merely delusional at times (fantastic is robbed in favor of reality); the harsh life turns that have led Riggan to where he is now are called into question by the nature of the “vision” he has been experiencing (the harsh reality is, potentially, just an elaborate mental vision – a fantasy!). Either way, the intimacy of the film is diminished by sidestories, like the truth or dare game Sam and Mike play – which seems odd in a vision of Riggan’s.

While not overwhelmingly plagued by problems, Birdman has one serious casting issue and that is Edward Norton. Norton is great as Mike; he takes the role of the cocky, established Hollywood actor and makes it work masterfully. The problem is that Birdman makes multiple allusions to The Avengers (reviewed here!) and the Marvel Cinematic Universe . . . of which Edward Norton is a part. In the film Birdman, the “Birdman” franchise is a thinly veiled allusion to Michael Keaton’s participation in the cinematic Batman franchise. In Riggan’s head, his past role mocks The Avengers as living in the shadow of Birdman; he paved the way for them. There is a logical fallout, then, for denying Batman, acknowledging the current Marvel Movie phenomenon . . . and then using one of the actors from that in a role that isn’t him. In other words, it’s hard to have lines poking at Robert Downey Jr. and having Riggan surprised that Jeremy Renner ended up in a cape (metaphorically), but then have Edward Norton on screen as someone who is not Edward Norton.

On the acting front, Birdman succeeds. Never one who has been a fan of Naomi Watts (on screen, not in real life – I’m sure she is a wonderful person, but outside Mulholland Drive I can’t think of a role she’s played where I’ve been truly impressed), I was pleasantly surprised by her performance in Birdman. Watts gives a good supporting role in the form of Lesley, an actress on the verge (potentially) of a breakout. Watts is credible as a young actress and she plays off Norton incredibly well. Her ability to emote in Birdman was more impressive than Emma Stone delivering a quality tirade or Michael Keaton playing an actor who is struggling to find his spotlight again.

That said, Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton and even Zach Galifianakis (in one of his straightest, most understated supporting roles yet!) are all good in Birdman. Despite my issues with the film’s “left turn” near the end, the performances are wonderful and create a very strong sense of character and time and place. It is easy to get immersed in the film.

Unfortunately, Birdman is a tough place to want to get immersed, at least more than once. For those expecting an incredibly original tale of an actor fighting for one last chance, one last role, there is a bit too much Black Swan (reviewed here!), not enough American Dreamz (reviewed here!).

[As winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of my Best Picture Project! Check it out!)

For other films that have surreal elements, please check out my reviews of:
The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus
Across The Universe
The Voices


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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