Birdman: or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance has already gotten many awards this season including Golden Globes for Best Actor (Michael Keaton) and Best Screenplay. So, I made my way to the Curzon Soho (the famous theatre in central London) to see the film that sported the long and inapplicable title. I was unsure of what to expect, but what I saw surprised me in more ways than just one.
We open with Michael Keaton or Riggan, the former superhero star, Birdman, meditating in mid-air. He floats peacefully in his tighty-whities centered in his dressing room on Broadway. After that moment of tranquility, we don’t have another second of peace as Riggan’s world turns into a schizophrenic chaos swirling around his play, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, by Raymond Carter. Riggan is trying to reclaim his moment of fame, or maybe just his moment, turning himself into a Broadway star by adapting, writing, directing and producing said play. But what happens is a series of mishaps and misfortunes plummeting him further into debt and compromises.
His daughter, played by Emma Stone, is a rehab graduate strung out and acting as his ornery personal assistant. She stole the show from Keaton throughout the film earning her Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. It is from her we get the message of the movie: you are not relevant. Without the world of social media, no one exists. You are not anyone until you have a Twitter or Facebook account, and even then, you aren’t guaranteed fame.
The whole film takes an introspective look into the entertainment industry, but more importantly, the celebrity industry. You can’t do anything for the sake of art anymore. To be “relevant,” you have to do something outrageous like cry over double rainbows in a drug induced high, follow baby goats around as they prance in their farm, or wear tighty-whities and stroll through New York City’s Time Square hoping beyond hope to not be recognized. After Riggan is locked out of the back stage of his own play, he runs around the entire block to the entrance in his underwear with dozens of people filming him and his frantic look as he desperately tries to disappear. This sixty-seconds of action is what gets him noticed and skyrockets his moment in the public eye–not his Broadway play.
Edward Norton casts an interesting shadow on the film as the egomaniac celebrity. In a moment of desperation, Riggan is forced to offer Mike (Norton) a part in the play hoping his name will generate buzz, an audience, and more importantly, money. But Mike the diva turns everything on its head getting drunk on stage and then sporting an erection during a bed scene. This caricature of method acting plays a foil to Riggan’s desire to just be “relevant.”
The film should have been called Birdman: or the Unexpected Virtue of Relevance. It would have made more sense.
As the opening night of Riggan’s play comes closer, he seems to spiral more and more out of control seeing visions of himself as the late-great Birdman, hearing the voice of his former action-self, and performing feats of telekinesis and levitation. What we don’t know is if Riggan really is a superhero or if he just mad. But the question is, how mad? In the supernatural moments, we always see Riggan by himself. He has no witnesses to his special powers making me think he isn’t special or unique but just a regular man trying to make a name for himself outside the realm of blockbusters and explosions. But what is also unique about this film is that while we never see another person with Riggan as he has his meltdowns, we also rarely see anyone’s reaction to anything due to the “single-shot” format of the film.
In that earlier clip with Emma Stone yelling at her father, she goes on this rant, but we don’t see until the end what her father’s reaction is. We see it in her face, which gutted me. But it did make me wonder what his face was betraying. Are we missing half the film by only seeing half the reactions?
Made to look like it was filmed all in one take or like a stage play with no chances for a “cut,” cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, did a wonderful job keeping the camera in motion as we floated through the stage and the streets of New York City. Knowing this before seeing the movie, it was a game to see where the cuts were made. Whenever there was a dark corner or a closed door, I knew it had to be where the editor made a cut and a new day of filming began. Playing this little game did take me out of the magic of the film, but I still found enjoyment in the story.
With the innovation and introspection, I would not be surprised if this film took Best Picture at this year’s Oscars. My personal choices are between this and Boyhood. Both pushed the envelope for cinematic entertainment and storytelling. But Birdman also challenged the current world’s look at relevance and what it takes to stand out in a world of fifteen minutes.
4 out of 5 stars