Birdman (2014)

RB Score:  What was the Academy smoking?

Well, the critics too.  I’m at a total and complete loss trying to understand why the critics went crazy for this offbeat vehicle, when director Innaritu took shots at them right and left in the movie.   It was good, yes, but much like Spike Jonze’s “Her”, neither director really deserved the level of adulation they received.  For anyone who didn’t see this in the theatre and waited for DVD release, rejoice.  Last year’s Best Picture is now at Redbox.

Let’s get this straight from the beginning.  Best Picture and Best Director this is not.  Michael Keaton was likely robbed of Best Actor but I shouldn’t say that until I also see The Theory of Everything. Innaritu displays a bit of contempt for audiences too.  He’s got some good points to make about the moviegoing public and our often fickle tastes.  Now if that’s really a problem for someone who makes a ton of money from audiences buying tickets, it isn’t going to be solved with lazy filmmaking.  Yes, lazy.  I’ll get to why in a minute.

Remember when you were in college, or high school, and wrote an English paper you just thought was incredibly genius.  And the paper did start off strong.  Your friends read the first few pages and were intrigued.  As the due date became close, though, you didn’t quite know how to finish the paper and started running out of steam.  That is what happens to Birdman about half way through. Lacking any ideas for how to make the entire written project hang together, you end up with something that falls apart.  Similarly, Birdman starts to come off the rails when it starts trying to pretend it’s genius. The teacher returns your genius work with a B and some red ink comments about how you lost control of your structure.  But movie critics gave Innaritu all A+ reviews for a B- movie.

So the basic plot, incorrectly hailed by some critics as original, involves a former Hollywood action star trying to resurrect his career.  Critics, this is not actually original.  When did Hollywood first take this painful look at itself, was it in the 1950s, 40s… maybe even 30s?  In any case, not new.  That’s not to say the premise isn’t perpetually teeming with good script possibilities, because it certainly is.  And this isn’t a bad script.  There is actually a lot of decent writing here, and the roles for Keaton and his castmates are meaty and filled with dialogue.  I can imagine actors must love getting their teeth into roles like these.

The movie opens with Keaton sitting in his actor’s dressing room in his underwear, seemingly levitated, introducing the audience into the character’s fragile mental state early on.  This, for me, was among the positives as Innaritu does a commendable job of showing us the character’s progression down the road of a disassociative personality disorder of some sort.  Keaton’s Riggin is banking everything on the success of his new Broadway play, although he yearns inwardly to return to his Hollywood days.  His mental illness combined with the stress of his play opening start to take a heavy toll on his functioning; yet in his theatre world, he is often the most sane person in the room.

The cast is rounded out with the costars to be in Riggin’s play: Edward Norton, as the self absorbed and charismatic Mike; Naomi Watts as a beautiful yet insecure actress whose lifelong dream is appearing in a Broadway production; and Andrea Riseborough, a more grounded actress and Riggin’s love interest.  Zach Galifiankis plays a somewhat different role from his usual type as Riggin’s friend and agent.  Emma Stone plays Riggin’s formerly estranged daughter, a recovering addict.  Riggin’s ex-wife is played by Amy Ryan in one of the movie’s more underplayed roles.  The ex-Mrs. Thomson is noticeably older amongst all the young actresses in the film, but still attractive in a more world weary, compassionate way.  With a dynamite cast like this, you really don’t need showoff camera techniques or CGI for that matter.  I can’t comprehend why the director just didn’t let these actors do what they do best.

Speaking of the camera work, much has been written about the “long, continuous take”.  It can be very effective, for example in the opening sequence of Brian DePalma’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” but for an entire movie it doesn’t seem to have the same impact, maybe because the novelty wears off, maybe because not all the scenes can possibly be unfolding in real time.  There are a few places where it does work, such as outdoors with the nightfall and sunrise, even then it’s not clear to me why that replaces a traditional cut as we all know that night doesn’t last for two seconds.  The following of people as they walk down the hall is an irritant.  Reportedly, Innaritu was very disdainful of audiences who didn’t appreciate how his movie was more than technique.  I can’t image what words he’d have for me as I don’t even appreciate the brilliant distraction of his technique. Where the film gets lazy is in its refusal to craft an ending that makes sense – in either direction.

The movie builds towards the ambiguous ending with several ambiguous scenes leading up to the conclusion (if you can call it that).  I read a review where the critic noted that for anyone who had worked in the theatre, they would totally understand the ending, but for the rest of us cretins (I’m paraphrasing) we are just too unenlightened to get it.  Yeah, okay.  Innaritu could have chosen to either make the imagery a reality (as in the ultimate imitation of art, by life) or, alternatively the culmination of a depressed mental state.  The latter would require a reworking of the ending where Emma Stone looks out of the hospital window.  The former would require several earlier scenes being revised.  Apparently Innaritu was either too lazy or too consumed by his own perceived level of brilliance.  I use the word “perceived” because there is nothing brilliant about trying to copy the swamp trash that was “Black Swan.”   It’s easy to see the elements of Swan that impressed Innaritu and how he then endeavored to incorporate them into Birdman.  I guess it worked for most in order to win Best Picture, but I’m thinking the director owes this entirely to his very talented cast.

EDIT:  After a couple days of pondering this film, which is more than I wanted to spend on doing so but it got under my skin, I’ve come up with something that makes sense, to me.  I did not read any online commentary prior to watching or posting my review, in order to keep the review honest (it may not be great but it’s honest) so I’ve been reading enough to know there are different accepted interpretations and that the writers themselves aren’t giving anything away.  I still find that more of a pretense than a device, but here goes. (Spoiler Alert but I’m probably the last person in the continental US to see it anyway)

Birdman more than likely dies on stage.  Yes, I know there are funeral images earlier in the film, but that could be foreshadowing the actual death instead of representation.  I think that the many images and clues have to do with the fact that Riggan is a man who died many deaths.  Part of him died when his marriage fell apart.  His career death was another of his many deaths.  The scene with Emma Stone where she really just tears into him, was another.  My reaction when watching that scene was “Oh my god, she is killing him.  She is killing his soul!”   When his girlfriend loses their baby and informs him of the loss, still another.  The run in with the critic, another.  Both Keaton and Norton play scenes in their underwear which brings home in a very stark way how actors are exposed as part of their job, when most of us have nightmares about such a level of emotional vulnerability.

But the true moment of death arrived when he shot himself.  In the following few seconds, his brain activity reflects what would make him feel loved and admired.  It has to be brain activity because none of it makes sense, starting with the standing ovation.  Someone shoots themselves on stage, the reaction is not going to be a standing ovation.  It will be screams and people rushing around and calling 911.  Yet, it was a standing ovation and the NY Times critic runs out of the theatre – an image that would make Riggan happy.  In the hospital, reconciled with his ex wife and daughter, then his agent comes by to tell him what a success he now is… it’s all there.  Finally he sees Birdman, in the toilet, humbled now, and leaves him there, because Riggan’s soul is now free to fly away. That’s my take and I think it adds up as well as anything can in this movie.