MOVIE REVIEW: Birdman

(Image: Rebecca Fons, Chicago International Film Festival)

"BIRDMAN"-- 5 STARS

50th Chicago International Film Festival special presentation

An overused description in film review is when someone is said to give "the performance of their life."  Figuratively speaking, the label is completely subjective as to what someone feels is an actor or actress's best role or performance.  Everyone has a different favorite or best in that regard.  Literally speaking, the statement is impossible.  The world keeps on turning, the actor or actress lives on, and, more bluntly literal, the performance wasn't close to their actual lifetime.  Literal or figurative, the line of "performance of a lifetime" is almost always an overstatement.  This writer avoids it at every chance.

What Michael Keaton has done in "Birdman" frighteningly borders on making that overstatement actually come true, both figuratively and literally.  In playing a washed-up former blockbuster actor famous for playing a superhero in the 1990s, the film could not have made a more appropriate, inspired, or ironic casting choice than Tim Burton's original Batman himself.  It feels eerily autobiographical.  Keaton completely counts as a former actor who people forget can really act and seeks to prove to the world he still can.  To everyone with a pulse, he's still Batman and Beetlejuice before he's remembered for "Night Shift," "Clean and Sober," and "My Life."  The mirror reflecting actor to character couldn't be more perfectly aligned.

With that ominous foundation of characterization alone, "Birdman" is already on a higher plane than others as a midnight black dark comedy that turns back the performance curtain.   When Keaton's perfection is combined with the film's bracing, topical, and strong social commentary on Hollywood, Broadway, acting, fame, and celebrity for this different modern world, "Birdman" becomes even larger of an achievement for Mexican director and Academy Award nominee Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.  Subtitled "The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance," this new film will earn a high place on many year-end lists for one of the year's best.  It will earn every vote it gets and then some. 

Michael Keaton is the nearly 60-year-old Riggan Thomson.  He is world famous for playing Birdman, a winged comic book superhero, in a trilogy of films from the 1990s.  Those high times are gone.  He's old, uninterested in social media, and has aged his way out of topical popularity by the current movement of new superheroes (with a finger pointing right at Robert Downey, Jr. and Marvel) that have surpassed and overshadowed his now-ancient and inferior work from a generation ago.  He considers himself now to be little more than a Trivial Pursuit answer and not a real actor.  

Riggan is reminded constantly of these failures by a dominant voice in his head that happens to be Birdman himself, calling out his manhood and egging him on to continue his sell-out ways.  In times that he can suppress the Birdman monologue, Riggan is cordial with his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) and is attempting to re-bond with his troubled daughter Sam (a very coy Emma Stone).  The only best friend has has left is his lawyer and agent Jake, played by Zach Galifianakis.  

Burned out by the celebrity lifestyle that has demonized his life and feeling uninspired by the ridiculousness of the pigeon-holing costumed character that made him rich, Riggan has turned down a lucrative "Birdman" sequel.  Instead, he and Jake have sunk all of his money into writing, directing, and starring in Raymond Carver's play "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" on the Broadway stage.  Riggan has gathered a tight-knit cast.  Naomi Watts is Lesley, a fellow failing movie star who is also aiming to make her Broadway debut.  Riggan's new girlfriend Laura is the other female lead.  

For Riggan, this is a whole new arena and challenge that no one thinks he can conquer, especially the snobbish Broadway veterans and critics that feel like some lesser Hollywood big-wig is invading their turf.  When the second male lead gets injured in a freak accident during rehearsals the day before preview night showings, noted Method actor and Broadway superstar Mike Shiner (a feverishly invested Edward Norton) steps in and infuses the play with instant new energy.  His name and clout sells tickets and partially legitimizes the production's previously woeful pre-release buzz.  However, Shiner's ego muscles in to muddy Riggan's vision and seeks to steal the show away.  The film follows this cast and crew through those preview showings and culminates with opening night.

You will notice very quickly while watching "Birdman" how phenomenally smooth it moves.  Academy Award winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki ("Gravity") and Academy Award winner lead editor Stephen Mirrione ("Traffic") use the camera as a puppet and take away its strings while pacing around (and rarely leaving) the tight-quartered bowels of this theater.  Utilizing fluid angles and shifting handy-cam movement couple with cleverly hidden cuts between extremely long takes and scenes, the film has the marvelous illusion of being one single and completely fluid take and not a series of acts or episodes.  Take the 14-minute uncut opening scene of "Gravity" and multiply that to two hours.  It is an impressive technical feat that surpasses those of last year's Oscar winner and merges with dynamic production design and costuming for a full visual feast that evolves all movie long.

The film's technical prowess is exceeded by its acting.  To fall for the trap of the aforementioned overused description, this really is the performance of Michael Keaton's life.  All of that overused hype is actually true.  Rich in thorns, hues, flaws, and hidden beauty, Riggan Thomson will be a character you don't soon forget.  It's a showy role that Keaton makes look easy despite its tremendous complications.  He is all but assured a place in the race for Best Actor at next February's 87th Academy Awards.  With the right luck, he might even win the whole thing and few will argue they got the wrong guy.

Another name you will likely hear that night at Dolby Theatre in Hollywood is Edward Norton and it will be deserved.  In the same way his Mike Shiner upstages Riggan Thomson, there are moments where Norton outshines Keaton with a devoted energy and brilliance we haven't seen from him in a long time.  With his past blockbuster history and frequent departures to smaller projects such as "Birdman" and Wes Anderson films, he too gets forgotten as one of the best actors working today.  Norton could be Keaton ten years from now and he would still nail it.  Cement his place in the Best Supporting Actor short list for the Oscar.

The third star of this production is the director himself Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.  Many will be surprised that four-time Academy Award nominee behind such morbidly serious films as "21 Grams," "Babel," "Biutiful," and "Amores Perros," could makes something this vibrant, comedic, and (*gasp*) mainstream.  Count this writer among them.  This is a massive storytelling and technical step-up and improvement for Inarritu to craft this spellbinding whirlwind.  With his co-writers, he has crafted something scathing, honest, relevant, and smart at the same time, a recipe combination that is rarely pulled off this good by even the best industry filmmakers.  The well-developed commentary in this film hits like a sledgehammer, yet reveals a shiny penny of a soaring success underneath.

LESSON #1: THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE-- The subtitle of the movie makes for an apt lesson and it comes into play with Riggan's point of view on several matters.  One could take this a step further and discuss the difference between "love" and "affection."  Love is solid while affection is fleeting.  Ignorance is supposed to be bliss or hubris to what people think about you.  Riggan, however, internally craves to know what people think of him and his work.  He begs to be loved.  He learns his shortcomings and the errors of his ignorance in other areas that keeps him from being loved, even by those closest to him.  The question becomes is it better than he doesn't know or doesn't care that he is beloved.

LESSON #2:  POPULARITY IS THE SLUTTY LITTLE COUSIN OF PRESTIGE-- This lesson comes from a gem of a quote from Norton's Mike.  It speaks to the commentary on the fickle criticism and praise thrust upon actors and celebrities during the peaks and valleys of career success and failure.  Think of the difference between casual fans and cultured snobs.  Casual fans are the ones that make junk like "Transformers" popular and successful.  More people will genuinely remember "Transformers" compared to who won an Oscar in some smaller movie.  The snobs hate that.  The elite curators of art see something mainstream and ostracize it paltry success that panders to the masses compared to what they consider the challenge and true craft that constitutes prestige.  These differing opinions come up when comparing Riggan's Hollywood notoriety with his baptism into "real acting" that is theater.  To connect this with Lesson #1, Riggan has the celebrity popularity but lacks the prestigious feather in his hat.  He's Matthew McConaughey before "Dallas Buyers Club" only on a lower rung of the ladder.

LESSON #3: REGAINING YOUR ARTISTIC INTEGRITY-- This lesson is the driving mission of Riggan's journey.  Because of the ignorance and lack of love shown to him from Lesson #1 and the lack of real respect and appreciation outlined by Lesson #2, he seeks to regain his artistic integrity with getting this play made.  He bets everything on it.  He could take the easy route and make superhero sequels, but wants this challenge to show others and himself that he's not just a costume and catchphrase.  Anytime, in any profession, people want to know they are taken seriously and honored for their quality work.  Riggan is no different and this quest consumes him.

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