February 17, 2015

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone



For my high school senior English project, we each had to write an ethnography. I chose to study theater people. (Anyone who argues that theater folks don't have their own culture has clearly never met a thespian.) So over the course of a couple months, I conducted interviews and attended innumerable rehearsals of the play Hurlyburly. In a lot of ways, it was interesting to see the same show performed over and over and watch the growth of the actors and characters and how they evolved throughout, leading up to the actual debut.

This movie--centered around a premise of a play being performed again and again--unfortunately chose the wrong subject. Granted, I've never read Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, but from what I can tell, it's horribly boring in play form. Much like my disastrous experience with Nixon in China the opera, some things are not meant to be adapted for the stage.


Interestingly, the entire movie read a bit like a play--nearly every scene took place in the theater house and it all felt like one long take. With the running musical score and the shadowing of characters through the dark hallways, it reminded me of Anna Karenina, except that I actually liked this movie. And while I think the score here complimented the movie well, the drums were sometimes so loud it was hard to hear the dialogue over them.

Emma Stone in this movie reminded me of the girlfriend in That Awkward Moment. I know she was supposed to be a recovering addict, but was part of her recovery the avoidance of hairbrushes and make-up remover? I've seen girls crawl out of the gutter at running of the bulls that look more put together than her. Her acting is pretty good here--the first time I've ever thought that--(she should seriously consider remaining a blonde), but frequent close-ups on her massive raccoon eyes distract from the performance.

Edward Norton, on the other hand, is fucking phenomenal. To me, this is what the Best Supporting Actor Oscar should be about--a performance that is so good it is not only memorable, but outright scene-stealing. Edward Norton has played a wide variety of roles before, but I've never seen him quite like this. He's neither the sweet, innocent priest of Keeping the Faith nor the raging psychopath of American History X. His character is both straight-forward yet complex and you both like and dislike him. This latest performance only further convinces me that there is no role Edward Norton can't play.

This is not to say Norton completely overshadowed Michael Keaton. The casting of Keaton was brilliant, if for no other reason than the *wink, wink, nod, nod* toward Keaton's own career as being almost entirely known for the Batman movies. He does a brilliant job of playing a tortured soul who is so wrapped in his own history and narcissism that he cannot even see how desperate he is. And the interactions between the two are both hilarious and infuriating.

BUT, this movie becomes a bit too self-pitying and tortured about the difficulties of acting and celebrity. (And coincidentally, the difference between the two.) I don't pretend to comprehend the struggle of actors: trying to keep a semblance of yourself when all you do is pretend to be someone else; simultaneously pursing both fame and prestige--I'm guessing it's similar to being a professional athlete. While I can certainly appreciate a dark inner monologue and a fading sense of self, I think dwelling on the struggle of people who are paid millions of dollars to do a job most of us can only dream of causes the story lose a bit of its relatability to the masses. Not to say millionaires can't have problems (they probably have more than the average person, truthfully)--it's just seems a bit proselytizing to make an entire movie about it.

It definitely lacks subtlety in targeting large action franchises and sets this undertone of "little guy" vs. "big Hollywood" which I'm sure is a metaphor for this movie being released in our current times of guaranteed money from sequels. (Once you start thinking about it, everything in this movie feels like a frickin' metaphor.) Don't get me wrong--I've done my fair share of complaining about the number of sequels and mindless Hollywood movies streaming into theaters this day. But I do think that large action franchises (like Fast and Furious, for example, which I happen to enjoy) have their place in the movie-watching world. I don't really care that something like Transformers 4 was made (ok, I kind of do). I do care that when it was released, the other major movie options for viewers were Think Like a Man Too, 22 Jump Street, and A Million Ways to Die in the West

Final word: I liked it, but it's wayyyyy too artsy for the average viewer. Even the title is out there.

P.S. If you're wondering why I failed to mention Naomi Watts' performance, well, let's just say it wasn't an oversight. She added exactly as much to the film as she did to my review of it.

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