Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

I've got a chance to do something right. I gotta take it.

I’ve got a chance to do something right. I gotta take it.

In keeping with my seeming tradition of starting off each new batch of additions with the Best Picture winner, let’s get right into 2014’s big winner: Boyhoo– I mean, Birdman. Truth be told, I was convinced that Boyhood had Best Picture and Director wrapped up, right up until about a week before the ceremony when Birdman suddenly gained a significant bit of steam (either that, or the novelty of Boyhood’s premise had worn off). Not to discount what Birdman ultimately is, but the Academy tends to be rather stuck in the present in their attempts to be timeless with their decisions for who or what film wins Oscars, and I fully expected them to go with the apparent timelessness that Boyhood captures. The Academy, however, seems to have had other ideas; Birdman took home the top prize, along with Director, as well as two more for its screenplay and cinematography – more on these later. I haven’t seen Boyhood yet, so I can’t yet say which film would’ve been the better choice, but I’ll say one thing: I ended up buying Birdman when it came out, entirely on a whim that I would enjoy it, and I’ve watched it multiple times since then. Those who have followed this blog should likely recognize that as probably the highest praise I can personally give a film, and Birdman warrants it; it is fully entertaining in the best of ways, and technologically amazing in more ways than that.

Riggan Thomson is a washed-up has-been of an actor, formerly famous for playing a cinematic superhero called Birdman for three films before he gave it all up. Now he’s on Broadway, hoping to reinvent and reignite his image and fame by adapting, directing, and starring in a play based on a short story by Raymond Carver. Thing is, he’s not fully aware of how out-of-his-element he really is, and the variables that make up the equation of his current life, from his fresh-out-of-rehab daughter to a volatile and unpredictable method actor added last-minute to his production to a scornful and bitter theater critic determined to ruin Riggan’s only chance at proving himself all seem to be slipping out of his grasp. Oh, and on top of all that, he might have telekinetic powers. If that sounds like a heck of a sell, it’s because it is; Birdman takes arguably three great premises and somehow mashes them all together into a single linear storyline about one central character, and makes it all work to such an amazing level that it is quite frankly no wonder the film got the rave reviews and accolades that it did. Much has been made about what Birdman supposedly (or not) has to say about the theater world, from its relationship to film to its relationship with the critics, and there is apparently many layers of subtext underneath the surface level of this picture. I’m not going to focus on that; it’s already been done, and much better than I could ever have. Instead, I’m going to focus on why I ended up loving Birdman as much as I did: because it’s so goddamn entertaining, that’s why. The script is so rich in dark comedy, not to mention that it chooses to focus on the theater industry, that I couldn’t help but have a small smile on my face throughout the entire picture. The cinematography, where the film is shot largely in long takes and edited together to look like the entire film (save the ending) is one seamless take, is almost as much of a novelty as Boyhood’s premise, but it’s a great indicator of why Birdman won so many awards for its cinematography where Boyhood’s premise was largely passed up; because it rises above merely being a novelty. Emmanuel Lubezki won his second consecutive Academy Award for this cinematography (after Gravity), and it was such a shoo-in that the other nominees became mere talking points in comparison. The acting is excellent across the board, from all the major players, but of course, it’s Michael Keaton’s show here, and he is absolutely spectacular, and the film wouldn’t have worked half as well with a lesser actor (the added humor of casting Batman in the role of a washed-up former superhero actor is simply icing on the cake). And oh my god, that drum score; here’s where my personal opinion threatens to color my viewpoints a little too unfairly, because I cannot fathom the Academy’s reasoning behind passing this one up for a nomination for Best Original Score. This was the film’s major omission at the Oscars that year, and every viewing of this film, with the drum score punctuating every beat of the film with incredible panache, just serves to highlight that omission.

As I said, I bought Birdman on Blu-ray when it came out pretty much entirely on a whim. Now, having seen it not only once, but several times (including again just to write this review, even without needing to), I’m damn glad I did pick it up. There’s still a little part of me that’s confused as to how this managed to win over Boyhood in the top two categories, but I’ll take it; this film is just so entertaining that the awards it garnered almost don’t matter. Of course, that it did garner a slew of awards is just gravy. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is apparently a very dour director, which I can’t attest to having only seen two of his films before this one, but it becomes even harder to imagine when one watches Birdman; the film is such a finely-wrought farce that it threatens to bleed into whatever perception of Inarritu a cinephile has, especially watching the extra features on the home release and seeing how jovial he is about the film and the production. Taking into account the fact that everything on-screen was practiced, rehearsed, and timed exactly to ensure the perfection of each long take, and that he managed to pull it all off, he certainly deserved his Best Director win as well. I think at this point it should go without saying, but if you love the entertainment industry, theater or film, Birdman will be almost required viewing for someone with a full appreciation of everything it has to offer.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

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