New YORK!!! A bright, grand city of lights, smells, sounds, and loud people who mean well. Birdman feels firmly grounded in this city, shuffling its feet from theatre, to bar, to alley, to rooftop. In pieces Birdman is an extraordinary film, with the kind of acting you rarely see and an array of characters that delight, frighten, and perplex. As a whole, however, I really don’t know what to think of it. The pieces are all there, but whether or not it comes together as a movie miracle is a question for the professors, the philosophers, and the Pope.
Part of my indecision stems from the opinion that Birdman feels like a farce. We have a late middle-aged actor, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), famous for his role as the cinematic superhero, Birdman, who tries to refresh his career by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play. Notice a few parallels between Riggan’s Birdman and Keaton’s Batman? I think we’re supposed to, but chances are it’s just a coincidence leaning against and gently knocking on the fourth wall. Anyway, Riggan’s play is suffering from Terribleleadactoritis, so a few short days before opening he hires a famous stage actor, Mike (Edward Norton), to fill the spot. Mike thinks he’s The Shit and makes ridiculous requests, leading the production to hit a financial wall and cause Riggan to lose enthusiasm, fearing he’ll be an ex-comic book star for ever. Oh, and Riggan also seems to be suffering from schizophrenia. The film steadily builds a fence between theatre actors and blockbuster celebrities, all the while presenting a tug-of-war between Riggan the actor and his alter ego, the masked, winged vigilante, who we swear for copyright reasons has no relation to Batman.
Giving in to fantasies and taking the advice of the menacing voice inside your head is not how you manage a mental illness. Birdman (the delusion) bullies Riggan and hits him with patronizing pep talks whenever Riggan feels angry or weak. This movie takes method acting to a whole new level, turning those artsy kids you made fun of in high school into dark, desperate, ambitious, lonely people who teeter on the wobbly edge of flat out nuts. Birdman shows the seedy, poisonous depths of theater acting but also pokes fun at movie stars who are famous for playing one hero in eight separate (but related) films. Is it better to be rich, popular, and commercialized, or broke and depressed but breathing the air of true Art?
Is Birdman right? Are movie actors “real” actors? Or do the green screens, CGI, and fan girls make them posers and sellouts? What happens to a blockbuster movie star when they’re too old to play a ripped hero with great hair? In Michael Keato- I mean, Riggan’s case, he stars in an artsy play and suffers the fans from his glory days. Keaton, Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, you name it; every actor in this movie does a phenomenal job, whether they’re performing a mesmerizing monologue or a captivating confrontation. Because Birdman is shot to look like one endless take, stalking characters from room to room, everyone has at least one, big, uninterrupted speech. And they all nail it. Ups, downs, anger, frustration, nostalgia, hope, bitterness… it’s all there and it’s beautiful to behold.
With its unusual filming style and the sense that this movie wishes it were a play, Birdman really has something unique going for it. But I’m still stumbling over my original question: do all of these great bits and pieces work together? It’s by far the smoothest movie I’ve ever seen, with no obvious cuts and a plot that floats along casually with the current. The only jarring moments come at the hands of the actors who decide when and how to make the audience jump. Like a dream, weird things can happen out of the blue, but we ask no questions because we were slowly introduced to the strangeness. Birdman may be nominated for plenty of awards this season but I think that’s because its individual parts (acting, cinematography, directing, and screenplay) are excellent. As a whole, it’s so hard to score, but I’ll go with a… 6.5/10. Or maybe an 8. No, 7 sounds good. Okay 7, why not.