Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Birdman: Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance


Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan

Rated R for Language Throughout, Some Sexual Content and Brief Violence

There is no denying that "Birdman" takes risks.  For the most part, it appears to have been all done in one take (it wasn't...clever editing camouflaged necessary cuts).  It also has something to say.  But being audacious and having an important message doesn't make a good movie.  I respect what the director, Mexican wunderkind Alexander Gonzalez Innaritu, is saying, but I don't like the way he goes about saying it.

Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is a has-been movie star who is trying to re-invent himself as an artist by putting on a Broadway play about Raymond Chandler.  It is not going well.  One of the actors was gravely injured on set and the opening is days away.  His leading lady, Lesley (Watts), brings in her boyfriend, the uber-talented and super method Mike Shriver (Norton), whose ego and antics may cause the project to collapse before it even gets out of the gate.  And Riggan's daughter Sam (Stone), who has just gotten out of rehab, is hanging around, making him regret how little he was around.  Making matters infinitely worse is the fact that Riggan sees, and can talk to, Birdman, the comic book character that he played 20 years ago.

Admittedly, having a movie appear to be in one, almost two hour long take is impressive. Unfortunately, a good idea, even if well done, doesn't make it worthwhile.  There are times when Innaritu gets too cutesy, such as when he has the drums on the soundtrack suddenly appear on screen.  He also repeatedly breaks the rule of getting artsy, but that's a point I'll come to later.

The acting is solid, but unfortunately the characters are boring.  Leading the cast is Michael Keaton, who made a minor comeback in the "Robocop" remake and got an Oscar nomination for his work here, is quite good here.  Present in every scene, Keaton makes a game try to make the film work, but unfortunately, his efforts are overshadowed by Innaritu's message and ego.  Emma Stone is also very good as his cynical daughter; the scene where she launches into a tirade about how he is no longer relevant is what probably scored her the Oscar nomination.  Edward Norton parodies his image of being a nightmare to work with to good effect; Mike Shriver is totally in love with himself and totally nuts.  Norton hasn't been this good in years.  Zach Galifianakis (in a mostly dramatic role), Naomi Watts and Amy Ryan provide effective support.

Unlike most films, "Birdman" has something to say.  He claims that we as a society have lost all respect for art and only want crass, dumbed-down schlock like comic book movies and the "Transformers" series.  It's a depressing sentiment, and I believe he has a point.  But Innaritu hammers down the message like a sledgehammer.  There are countless times when he shows off and gets "artsy" when he doesn't need to.  For what seems like half the movie, the soundtrack consists of a single drummer warming up, which is fine for an intro to a set at a jazz club, but comes off as pretentious in a movie like this.  There is also a lot of surrealism in this movie (the film opens with Riggan levitating in his room) that serves absolutely no purpose,  I have to admit though, the scene where a walk down the street turns into a battle between helicopters and a mechanical monster is pretty cool.

What I really didn't like is the elitism and condescension to the audience.  "Birdman" comes across as insulting to any person who likes mainstream entertainment.  Therese a scene where Spider-Man and Bumblebee from the "Transformers" movies dance on a Broadway stage, and a scene implies martyrdom for the sake of art.  As a result, Innaritu comes across not as someone with a valid point to make but as one of those whiny "outsider art" loving bohemians that only love dull and dry crap and hates anything that's accessible to the masses.  To say that art and entertainment can't be mixed is preposterous; last year's "Interstellar" is a fine example.  It is also a much better movie.

Ironically, or perhaps not, I thought of "God's Not Dead" when watching this movie.  Both filmmakers have valid points to make, but make huge mistakes in the telling.  "God's Not Dead" was a reprehensible preach-fest while this is an exercise in pretension.  The focus in both of those movies was the message itself, not the telling of it.  And that is why I recommend you give this movie a pass.

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