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High-Flying ‘Birdman’ Doesn’t Quite Soar

by on December 1, 2014

BirdmanDirector Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new film “Birdman” is a unique and ambitious project that tries hard to awe moviegoers with its technical achievements and “importance.”  Actually, it tries too hard.

The film has received almost universal acclaim, so I went into it trying hard not to elevate my expectations to a level that could never be met.  Admittedly, my reaction fell somewhere in the middle.  It’s perplexing that the movie has received such over-the-top raves, but I will freely admit that the movie’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses.

This is a film with imagination and a trio of performances so effective that the movie evolves into a must-see event.  There may have been a few things in this movie that did not work for me, but let me be clear: You should absolutely watch this movie.  It is a work of art that will certainly draw different reactions from different people.

Much of this film resonated with me because of my experiences in theater. I attended this movie with a friend who also does a lot of theater work, and she made a comment afterward that really stuck with me.

“It’s like studying an actor’s psyche,” she said.

That’s certainly not an inaccurate way to describe it.

I found Riggan Thomson (played by Michael Keaton), a washed-up film actor looking for redemption in a new Broadway show, very relatable. Because while people like to make fun of actors for being pretentious and self-important, they of course don’t think of themselves this way. They are just being passionate about what they do and because they take their work seriously, they want audiences to do the same. Sure, there may be a lot of narcissistic actors out there, but there are a lot of narcissistic people too.

Interestingly, the movie seems to mock narcissistic actors while also making the viewer empathize with Riggan during his moments of self-doubt.

For me, theater has always been a way to collaborate and connect with other people. It makes me feel less empty and alone. I have no real interest in fame, but I am certainly interested in being respected. It takes a lot for a person to put himself or herself in the vulnerable situation of a live performance.  Because of all this, I understand Riggan’s need for validation.

As I mentioned before, there are three exceptional performances that keep this movie afloat. Keaton gives a terrific, layered performance, and a lot of people are labeling “Birdman” as his comeback. I would argue that he never went away.  He has done some great work recently, particularly as Ken in “Toy Story 3” and Captain Mauch in “The Other Guys.”  This is certainly a career-best performance, but he’s always been a good actor.

Edward Norton also does great work in this film in a hilarious performance as a detestable self-absorbed actor. The always charming Emma Stone turns in an incredible performance in the film as well. She gives us something very different than what we usually see from her. I expect her to come up a lot during awards season conversation.

Surprisingly, something the movie gets right is the business of commercial Broadway theater. The stakes are really high for contemporary Broadway shows, and you can feel that urgency in the movie. The cynical New York Times critic, the need for big stars to sell tickets, the large investments, it’s all there.

Unfortunately, the final ten seconds of this movie threaten to unravel the entire enterprise.  I won’t spoil it, but it is pretty absurd.  Once the credits roll, it suddenly seemed like the whole movie had built up to nothing. It was unsatisfying and failed to provide any real resolution.

Despite its disappointing conclusion, the movie’s originality, performances and slick editing techniques make for a unique experience. And ultimately, most of the flaws can be forgiven because of how solid the rest of it is. There is always something to be said for films that carry this much ambition. The reach of this movie might exceed its grasp, but it deserves to be appreciated because there is no other movie like it.

3.5/5 stars

What did everybody else think?

Bryan Faux can be contacted on Twitter @fauxbj_88.

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