By Shane M. Dallmann
The first film I went to see in 2015 was one of the best films of 2014–one that’s been around for quite a while but one which I just couldn’t manage to get to earlier. Last year we were utterly inundated with superhero films both terrific and terrible. Now, I’m never going to lose my affection for the comic-book genre (no matter how hard an AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 tries to get me to do so); but ANY movie year like 2014 really NEEDS to wrap up with something like BIRDMAN–both to put things in perspective AND to utterly defy mere description–including mine. Now, THIS is a MOVIE!
I imagine you’re quite familiar with the premise by now. A perfectly cast Michael Keaton stars as “Riggan Thomas,” who enjoyed the height of his cinematic popularity in the early 90s playing the superhero “Birdman.” Now sixty-ish, Riggan is gambling what’s left of his personal fortune in an attempt to open his dream project (an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” in which Riggan will star in addition to scripting AND directing) on Broadway. Our protagonist’s previous celebrity antics have already cost him his wife (Amy Ryan) and his relationship with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), but they’re both in close proximity to the project all the same. A desperate attempt to replace a thoroughly unsuitable co-lead with a guaranteed draw brings “Mike” (Edward Norton) into the picture, but Mike’s prima donna antics soon threaten to shove Riggan out of the spotlight altogether (I couldn’t help but think that Val Kilmer would have been equally amazing and even more ironic/iconic in the role, but I can’t suggest for a second that Norton is anything but excellent here). And the nation’s most influential theatre critic has already promised to destroy Riggan AND his play just because she doesn’t think that a spoiled Hollywood has-been has ANY business trying to take Broadway…
…oh, and all the while, Riggan’s previous cinematic identity continues to “egg” him on as a voice in his head (soon to become something even more substantial), urging him to give up “Art” and return to “Commerce.” And Riggan might also be telekinetic.
If you haven’t already seen BIRDMAN, you might have thought you had a handle on the material up until that last bit. Trust me. You didn’t. Sure, you’ve got the comfortable themes and the seemingly effortless casting (also including leading lady Naomi Watts, Riggan’s current “love” interest Andrea Riseborough and Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s lawyer/best friend/voice of “reality”). But all that means is that anybody (including those currently existing on a diet of nothing BUT Hollywood effects blockbusters) can walk into this and understand the story without fear of being put off by what they might perceive as “art film” pretensions. Oh, but they’ll get so much more if they do. There’s the technique of director Alejandro González Iñárritu which, combined with all of today’s technical advances, conveys the illusion that the entire film was shot in one take (even though common sense tells us that this wasn’t even remotely possible). There’s plenty of laugh-out-loud comedy and straightforward, accessible drama to take in even as the rules bend around us. Is the constantly busy musical soundtrack an addition to the film or does it have an on-screen (or on-stage) source? Are the fantastic elements purely in Riggan’s imagination or do they affect others? There must be an answer–this isn’t a ‘first-person’ film like Cronenberg’s VIDEODROME, after all–BIRDMAN spends plenty of time with characters Riggan couldn’t be observing at the time…
Yeah. I dropped the “C” word for a reason, and I feel like dropping a few more names, but the more I go on, the more I fear I’ll just be telling you what to look for rather than letting you take BIRDMAN in as a fresh experience. But I’m going to try to tantalize you all the same.
Final shot of VIDEODROME. Final shot of TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (which I viewed the previous evening in an event of sheer coincidence). Final shot of MAGNOLIA.
BIRDMAN could have signed off in so many different ways. But it found the PERFECT conclusion. What a capper for the year.