Film Score: Antonio Sanchez Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton and Zach Galifianakis
Slumdog Millionaire won over Benjamin Button and The Reader the last time I felt that the wrong film had won for best picture. But it happened again last year. The Academy certainly took me by surprise when they chose Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) as best picture, especially with films like Boyhood and American Sniper to choose from. But after finally watching the film, it all sadly makes sense. While it’s not as utterly offensive as something like Paul Anderson’s Magnolia, it still manages to measure pretty high on the pretentiousness Richter scale. The one good thing about Anderson’s film, though, was that it was ignored at Oscar time. Birdman was the big winner a year ago, because Academy voters were sucked into the cult of different-is-better, and didn’t look closely enough at what was in the film and what it was really doing. The premise is interesting, and the technical effort is laudable, but the actual product isn’t very entertaining, and that’s a shame. Iñárritu also won a statuette for his direction, and Emmanuel Lubezki for cinematography, both well deserved. But handing out Oscars to the writing team of Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., and Amando Bo, as well as Iñárritu for what is an incredibly pedestrian story, was the real low point of the last year’s ceremonies.
Michael Keaton plays a film actor best known for a series of films where he played the superhero Birdman. But once he had left the franchise his career had fallen on hard times. When the film begins he’s a few days away from opening a play on Broadway, one that he wrote based on the writings of Raymond Carver. When his co-star, Jeremy Shamos, is injured on the stage his female co-star, Naomi Watts, tells him that her boyfriend, Edward Norton, can play the part. Norton is a veteran New York actor and immediately begins shaping the material to suit him. Meanwhile the other female lead in the play, Keaton’s girlfriend Andrea Riseborough, tells him she’s pregnant, and his daughter who is acting as his personal assistant, Emma Stone, is spewing vitriol at him because of her unhappy childhood. Keaton’s lawyer, Zach Galifianakis, is attempting to keep the three-ring circus going so that they can put on a show, but the personalities involved aren’t making it easy. At one point, because Norton doesn’t have real gin in his glass, he tanks the preview and Keaton is ready to close the show. But Galifianakis is desperate not to lose the star’s money, while Watts is desperate to finally have a chance at some notoriety, and Norton engineers the press to make it seem that he’s the star of the show.
What critics liked about the film was primarily the gimmick of presenting the story in one sustained take, in the manner of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. While the technique--with the aid of modern computer assistance--is interesting for a while, it soon becomes wearying as the camera chases characters through the hallways of the theater and out on the street. The camera is always moving, relentless, and in the pacing of the film there is absolutely no room to breath. But Iñárritu’s concept goes beyond Hitchcock, and also uses techniques explored, with better results, in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, where passages of time are also woven into the narrative without cutting away from the scene in progress. It is an impressive feat, with actors walking in and out of the scene seemingly in real time, but with no time for the viewer to process information it loses its impact rather quickly and turns into a narrative assault. More than anything else, however, the screenplay is the weakest part of the film. There is a tremendous feeling of having seen all of this before. The aging actor struggling to make something important of his career and the newcomer angling to steal his spotlight is straight out of All About Eve. And the dissolution of Keaton’s relationship with Riseborough, the dissolution of Norton and Watts’ relationship, and the burgeoning relationships between Riseborough and Watts as well as Norton and Stone seem so trite and overly familiar they are almost insulting to the viewer.
There are a few bright spots, however. The acting, for the most part, is quite good. It’s terrific to see Michael Keaton play a character that seems as if it could mirror his own journey. And Edward Norton is magnificent in the way he pushes everyone around him into doing extraordinary work. On the down side, most of the rest of the cast are interchangeable with other similar actors, and Emma Stone’s emotional rants are incredibly tedious. The one aspect of the film that is intriguing is that Keaton actually seems to possess some real super powers. But rather than do anything with it, Iñárritu lets it simply lie there without exploration, part of a magical realist sensibility that promises much but fails to deliver on that promise. Another missed opportunity is the subtle criticism of popular movie culture and social media. When Keaton talks about “missing” his daughter’s birthday party because he was videotaping it, there is so much more to be said that falls by the wayside. Even the incredible drum score by Antonio Sanchez is undercut by classical music selections later on in the film. In spite of all the negatives, it really is an impressive piece of filmmaking, but ultimately Birdman is a film that is less than the sum of its parts and is a disappointing best picture winner.