“Birdman” is not old news. I assure you.
It is the best film I’ve seen so far this year – a must film, it seems to me, for anyone who gives a hoot about the survival of art and audacity in movies.
It will, tragically though, seem old news on its Friday opening because of an antiquated movie marketing system that “platforms” more challenging movies so long after New York and L.A. openings that by the time the films reach those in what all-too-coastal types think of as “flyover country” (or its au courant colloquial equivalent) it is thought to be old news by some audience members who have been soaked in the hype tsunami.
What could be new about such a film? The most passionate movie fans have, no doubt, read so much about it thus far that it’s almost as if they have already seen it.
This movie marketing system was nonsensically antiquated in 1980 and quite frankly, having it survive in the twitterverse of the 21st century is a lunacy as well as a shame on a movie industry that has always prided itself on being up-to-date.
If you love movies, you know all about “Birdman” already – or so you think. You know that Michael Keaton, the first big movie Batman – sublimely perfect casting – plays an actor who has been a smash mega-hit as a costumed movie hero named Birdman and has seen his serious professional reputation suffer ever since.
You know that in the film, actor Riggan Thomson (Keaton) has adapted a great story by Raymond Carver into a Broadway play intended to re-calibrate completely mass perception of his worth to his chosen profession.
You know, if you’ve been surfing the giant silvery waves of “Birdman” hype (which isn’t really hype), that his Broadway play has been unusually star-crossed before its Broadway opening – that one lousy actor had to be replaced when he was accidentally (?) beaned on the noggin by a falling stage light, that his replacement (Edward Norton) is a wildly willful method actor with a zipper problem and a taste for onstage alcoholic realism.
You’ve seen the reviews and the TV interviews so, yes, yes, yes, you know already all about the astonishingly audacious decision of director Alejandro González Iñárritu to film it, as much as possible, in impossibly long takes so that the whole film almost seems as if it’s one insanely ambitious steadicam shot.
You know already that this virtuosic film is full of satiric wit and antic gut-busting humor. And you know that it has been liberally laced with the magic realism that is part of the legacy of the below-the-border region Iñarritu comes from and which has become among the glories of the Western imagination. (See, in particular, the great novels of Colombian maestro Gabriel Garcia Marquez.) This is a movie that begins with a nude Keaton levitating in dressing room meditation.
What’s left, you might well say? Haven’t you already read so much that seeing it is redundant? What’s – you know – new in the movies?
“Birdman,” that’s what. It’s a movie so good that it completely effaces the dunderheaded backwardness of its colossally anachronistic marketing.
When you see the movie, I assure you, you may think that every detail of the film is vastly richer than what’s been glossed over in synopses.
Take, for instance, just the choice of Carver’s story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” the raw material of Riggan’s Broadway play that will, he thinks, win him the acclaim he, alas, knows he deserves.
If you’re at all familiar with Carver’s story – and the whole pre-publication tale of it in which Carver actually asked to have his name taken off of it because of Gordon Lish’s radical editing – you know that the movie is so clever that even its cleverest jokes have clever jokes inside them.
This is a movie at once a satire on the artistic struggle for legitimacy and a celebration of the exact kind of artistic ambition that made a great Mexican director migrate to America and want to make a film like “Birdman” in the first place.
Iñarritu knows that, yes, of course, art and pretension and buffoonery go hand-in-hand-in-hand like a Broadway show cast taking its bow at the end of a play.
But, for pity’s sake, look at that wonderfully outrageous and ambiguous ending that, if you’re lucky, you’ll be talking about not just on the car ride home but for days afterward.
Is it magic realism? Is it madness? Is it fantasy? Are we inside Riggan’s head? Are we inside Iñárritu’s?
Look at these performances – Keaton, who doesn’t put a foot wrong; Norton, who is every bit his equal as his dangerous almost-equal who actually deepens what’s going on; Emma Stone as Riggan’s mordant, wisecracking daughter; and Naomi Watts as the actress treated by the male stars as the play’s sexual prize.
In the 1950s, Joseph L. Mankiewicz could make the film “All About Eve.”
In 2014, we have another masterful film about the theater – but in this case movies, too, and the brains and souls and ambitions of those who make them with too little ambition, boldness and pride.
Unless, that is, they turn out like “Birdman.”
Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Lindsay Duncan, Zach Galifianakis
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Running time: 119 minutes
Rating: R for language, some sex and violence.
The Lowdown: Acclaimed film of a disillusioned costumed movie superhero who tries to find acting integrity in a Broadway play and begins to fall apart.