Here we go – the first of the Best Picture nominees that I am seeing for the sake of seeing. I saw Grand Budapest Hotel in the theater, and I loved it. The rest of the list, I will be forcing myself through. Of the list, Birdman was the one I was most looking forward to. I have always enjoyed Michael Keaton, and always thought that he was better than people gave him credit for. I had been warned that this movie was really surreal, and a bit wacky.
First off, let me just say that this is not a comedy. It is an award-season “comedy”, which basically means a really heavy and bizarre drama with occasional funny scenes. And in this case, very few funny scenes.
Birdman follows the story of Riggan, an actor who once played the iconic superhero Birdman in three films more than 20 years ago. In attempt to reclaim his career he is staging a Broadway play that he adapted from a book, he’s directing, he cast, and he’s funding. He is also struggling to rebuild his relationship with his daughter who is freshly out of rehab, strengthen his relationship with his girlfriend, who he cast in the play and may or may not be pregnant – and maintain a friendly relationship with his ex-wife – all the while dealing with the voice in his head, belonging to Birdman, that gets louder and louder as the story progresses, pushing him to cave in to the public demand for more Birdman movies (that were all style, no substance). The movie follows the couple of days leading up to the opening of his play, the two preview nights, and the opening night.
As the pressure mounts, Riggan loses one of the actors in the play when a light “falls” on him (it may have been caused to fall by Riggan’s developing telekinesis – by the way, Riggan may or may not be developing telekinesis), and has to replace him with a difficult-to-work-with younger actor named Mike, played by difficult-to-work-with Ed Norton. The first preview night goes terribly, as Mike gets drunk on stage and berates the audience. The second preview night goes just as bad as Riggan gets locked out of the theater with no clothes and has to come back in the front door. Riggan has a rough encounter with the locally famous broadway critic whose review will make or break his play – then has a mental breakdown, gives in to the Birdman voice in his head which just wants him to make more popular Birdman movies, and uses his telekinesis to fly around New York City. Spoiler Alert - The opening night’s performance goes surprisingly well, leading to dramatic final move by Riggan that may or may not have been planned, resulting in him ending up in the hospital – which may or may not result in him flying around the city as his daughter watches. The movie’s secondary title, “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”, is the title of the review that the aforementioned critic writes.
There you have it – crazy and insane, but actually quite watchable, with a whole lot of “may or may not”.
As I said – certainly not a comedy, but it does have some funny parts. I also loved director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s technique of making the movie look like it is all one single shot. Most of the scenes are clearly one take, and one continuous shot and it really is powerful that way. You feel like you are observing things in real time. I liked the choice to have Riggan hearing Birdman the whole time acting as his conscious – of perhaps acting as his ego. The score, which is almost entirely drumming, is a little distracting, but does work with the tone of the movie. I did learn that apparently it was disqualified from running for the Best Score Oscar, but I’m not sure why – too much drumming? I will go with that – too much drumming. The flying scene looks great, the Birdman suit is fun, the story is interesting, and while not especially entertaining, it was watchable and the reason is the fantastic cast:
- Michael Keaton has always been good – but never as good as he is here. The Birdman voice in Riggan’s head is somewhere between Burton Batman voice and BeetleJuice voice, but that is certainly not an issue. Keaton plays slowly unraveling in an amazing way – his tense relationship with Norton is fantastic, and the slowly increasing relationship with Stone’s character is great.
- Emma Stone plays Sam – Riggan’s daughter, and for some reason, her eyes look crazy big in this movie. Sam is just barely hanging on, and Stone portrays her as disinterested, but interesting.
- Zach Galifianakis was a small surprise to me as Jake, Riggan’s lawyer/best friend. His performance is genuine and straightforward and is devoted to Riggan and helping him make the play a success.
- Naomi Watts plays Lesley, one of the other actors in the play. She is the one who brings in Mike, because they are ‘together’. She is really excited about the opportunity to be on broadway, but aside from that, doesn’t have much to do. I did enjoy the scene where she talks about how creepy Sam is, without realizing she was in the room.
- I did spend a great deal of time trying to figure out where I had seen Andrea Riseborough before, until I realized she was Victoria in Oblivion. Here, she plays Laura, the fourth actor in the play, and Riggan’s girlfriend. She has less to do than Watts – and there is one extremely random scene where the two are consoling each other and suddenly end up making out – which makes no sense.
- Edward Norton is the fourth actor in the play, Mike. He’s creepy, difficult, and exceptionally off-putting, which is the point. He does sexually assault Lesley just before they are going on stage, which is really disgusting, and then steals a story Riggan tells him when he gives an interview – which is also upsetting. He’s just an all-around terrible person, and then Sam hooks up with him, and I couldn’t tell if we – the audience – was supposed to be in favor of that or against that.
- Amy Ryan plays Sylvia, Riggan’s ex, who shows up from time to time to keep him grounded, and Lindsay Duncan plays Tabitha, the broadway critic.
For those that care – the movie was shot in St. James Theatre on Broadway, and the single-shot work required most of the actors to perform up to 15 pages of dialogue at a time while hitting really precise marks because of the camera movements. It is interesting that Riggan has some similarities to Michael Keaton because of the Batman/Birdman connection, but Keaton has stated that he feels Riggan is the character least like himself that he had ever played. Like I said – it’s certainly watchable, but not necessarily enjoyable. Of the best picture nominees, so far it’s my second favorite (I have still only seen 2).
6 out of 10 – Gained points for the single shot camera pieces. Lost points for Norton, I just cannot stand him. Gained points for the Birdman suit. Lost points for the random lesbian kiss, which made no sense. Gained points for the guy reciting lines from MacBeth outside the theater. Lost points for the end, because it just wasn’t a happy ending – but maybe it was close? Gained points for Zach Galifianakis.
Bonus Video 1 – Mr. Mom – one of Michael Keaton’s very best.
Bonus Video 2 – The Dream Team – another of his best.
Bonus Video 3 – BeetleJuice, because – BeetleJuice. "From the Director of Pee Wee's Big Adventure" Ha! Who knew what he would go on to become!
Bonus Video 4 – Cast Interviews: