I seldom struggle to find the words, to express my thoughts about a film. However, after watching Birdman, I felt nothing but a sense of perplexity. How can one describe what they have just seen, after watching this abstract film? I knew that there were moments I enjoyed, but overall, I struggle to see how this film can contend with some of the other, Oscar nominated flicks, at least as a best picture nomination.
There are things that are impressive about this film, known in its full title as, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). For instance, the cinematography, while it often leaves one feeling dizzy and disoriented, is worthy of a nomination for cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki. Along with the intricate editing by Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione, the entire 113 minutes shot, looks like it was done in one continuous take. It’s virtually flawless, as Lubezki follows characters around, walking behind them, or even as them, from their point of view. The intricate pan and tracking of the camera circles around the action, moving fluidly from one actor to another. While I’d grow tired of this movement, rather quickly, if more films sought to use this cinematography style, in Birdman, it strangely works with the aesthetic.
Of course, where this film truly shines is with its acting. The film garnered three Oscar nominations for the acting, by Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, and Edward Norton. Granted, every performance in this film was fantastic. It’s hard to argue with a cast that also includes Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Ryan, and Lindsay Duncan. While I’m not a huge fan of Zach Galifianakis, he is competent in his role as Michael Keaton’s attorney/the producer of his show. Emma Stone is another actor who I am not as enamored with, as many other people are, yet, as Sam, the recovering drug addict daughter of Keaton, she gives one of her best performances. Naomi Watts and Amy Ryan are always terrific, and they do not disappoint, but it is Michael Keaton and Edward Norton, who steal the show.
Is this a dream? What is reality? We are never really sure in this latest film from writer/producer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who managed to snag an Oscar nom for directing and writing (along with co-writers, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo). The film is far more indulgent than past efforts of his, including 21 Grams and Biutiful. These films are far grittier, and realistic. Of course, Birdman is also meant to be a dark comedy, though it would be better described as a dark fantasy. What is reality, and what is our own specific reality within this world? Michael Keaton’s character, Riggen Thompson, seems to struggle with these concepts, and the idea that he is nothing and a nobody. With his own daughter reaffirming this, and his own guilt at failing to be a father and husband (to ex-wife, Sylvia, played by Amy Ryan), Riggen is on the verge of some sort of mental break.
What I took from this film was the idea that Riggen has some form of mental illness, and this reality is what he dreams for himself. We see him levitating, flying across NYC, and talking to Birdman, the superhero character he played, in a series Hollywood films. Riggen is attempting to resurrect his faded career, on the stage. While many Hollywood actors attempt to revive their careers, on Broadway, Lindsay Duncan, as the film critic, Tabitha, serves as a the voice of the idea that Hollywood produces fake actors, and the real actors belong on the stage. With Tabitha insisting she will ruin Riggen’s Broadway return, by writing a negative review of his show, he is once again reaffirmed that he is nothing, and nobody will care what happens to him.
There is a strong suggestion about suicide. At the end, Riggen disappears out of the hospital window, and it is implied that he flew off, a la Birdman. However, Riggen also discusses his struggle with suicide before, with Sylvia. The relationship with those on stage, especially the sexist, volatile Mike (Edward Norton), who manages to steal the attention from Riggen, is one of dysfunction, and seems to further drive Riggen into a sense of self-depreciation. One begins to wonder if any of the events are even really happening, at all, especially with so many blatant references to dreams (Keaton does run through Time Square in his underwear, when he gets shut out of one of the theater doors – how many of us have had an underwear dream?).
Granted, there were some problems I had with this film. Birdman is yet another self-indulgent film about white people. The lack of diversity, in the cast, while not surprising, was disappointing. When Mexican directors must rely on all-white casting, the racial disparity problem in Hollywood is all the more unforgivable. As for the women in the film, there was a lot of potential, for strong female roles, but the female on female kissing scene, between Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough (as Laura, an actress in the play and Riggen’s younger girlfriend) seems almost gratuitous. There really seemed to be no rhyme or reason for this, other than to have two women kissing, and while nothing ever comes of it, it pretty much sums up the idea behind the multiple women who make up the majority of the cast. While the scene might, again, point to this idea that this is a dream (since so many men claim to dream about seeing two women kissing), it makes little sense, beyond that.
Finally, I have to point out how annoying I found the score, for this film. Though Birdman was nominated for both sound editing and sound mixing, I’m not surprised that it did not garner any nominations for the music. The overabundance of percussion, in repetition, for the full 113 minutes of the film, was grating. Sure, I like a good drum solo, now and then, but the film is a constant stream of banging drums, which distracts from the overall quality, of the film.
Ultimately, while I did have some problems with Birdman, I did also enjoy watching the film. In the end, it is the acting that makes it what it is. Without Keaton, Norton, and the rest of the cast, this film would have been a hot mess.