Thursday, October 30, 2014
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu
3.5 out of 5
Most opinions about art are as involuntary as a sneeze. An experienced eye can discern between the basically good and bad, but there's no denying the immediate power of what we feel as we're watching a movie. They are judged in the moment, and it takes a hell of a lot to scrape away those initial, visceral feelings to expose their underpinnings. (They call this process criticism.)
How, then, to criticize something like Birdman, a movie where "in the moment" becomes an amorphous moving target? It's a meta-joke, an apologia, and an artist's manifesto all rolled up into one. And it becomes more complicated when that artist is Alejandro González Iñárritu, he of the overwrought, overbearing everything-is-connected mopefests 21 Grams and Babel. Birdman is full of life by comparison, even as it revolves around a washed-up Hollywood actor (a revelatory Michael Keaton) slowly unraveling as he tries to resuscitate his career and earn critical respect by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story.
Keaton plays Riggin Thomson, an actor known for starring as the superhero "Birdman" and a man whose bid for artistic integrity is undermined by the various crises in his personal and professional life: his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is a recovering drug addict resentful of Thomson's attempts to reconnect by hiring her as an assistant; his co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough) may be pregnant with his child; and his play is on the verge of catastrophe when one of his lead actors is put out of commission by a falling stage light. Thomson's best friend and producer (Zack Galifianakis) and his other co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggest that he hire the brilliant and mercurial Method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) as a replacement - a choice that provides a creative and financial jolt but has a negative net effect on Thomson's shaky psyche.
The chaos in Iñárritu's films rests so much on calculation and coincidence that their messages and premises are at cross-purposes with their structure and style. His solution in Birdman is to make that contradiction part of the spectacle. You almost don't notice how hard the cast and crew are working to precisely calibrate the film's manic, freewheeling vibe. For example: the film is shot to suggest that it is all one continuous take, but then there are the impossible transitions and costume changes and time lapses. All of it bleeds into a heightened reality that one would expect Thomson, a highly unreliable narrator, to live in.
On the other hand, it's easy to feel like Iñárritu has chosen the most complex and difficult way to remake Noises Off. Not-so-deeply-buried within Birdman is a satisfying backstage farce and a knowing admission of the laughably insane lengths that people will go to affirm their own flattering self-image. Yet the longer Birdman lasts, the more subtlety it loses - nimble verbal sparring matches turn into shouty slobberknockers, two characters express their vulnerability within the framework of a Truth or Dare game, and a haughty stage critic (Lindsay Duncan) embodies a Chef-like lack of nuance that makes me question if Iñárritu is sincere when he jokes about his industry.
Yet whether it's too contradictory or too bloated or too overdetermined, Birdman never claims to take itself seriously (even though Iñárritu clearly does care enough to go to such impressive technical lengths). It is audacious and insufferable, enjoyably wacky and annoyingly inconclusive. It embodies a slogan Thomson has taped to his dressing room mirror: "A thing is a thing, not is what is said of that thing." I don't necessarily agree with that, especially in the case of Birdman. But one thing's for certain: it's nothing to sneeze at. .