Review: Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

As always, I will try my best to speak in general terms about the movies that I am reviewing, but there might be some accidental spoilers, so please read with caution.

It goes without saying that there was some steep competition for the top accolade of Best Picture at this year’s Oscars. Among the nominees were Birdman, American Sniper, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, and Whiplash.

While Birdman took the top honors, I think everyone and their mothers would agree that Boyhood could have won on the pretense of dedication alone. The lead character was actually progressing through his child years to adulthood during the 12 years that it took to film the movie. At least four movies showcased real people and events — including Dr. Martin Luther King and his march through Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement as shown in Selma, and the accomplishments and struggles of U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle as shown in American Sniper — all with their respective marks made on the history of the 20th and 21st centuries. The Grand Budapest Hotel, a Wes Anderson comedy about the trials and tribulations of a hotel concierge and a lobby boy set in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka during the early 20th-century, and Whiplash, the fictional story of a driven music student who will stop at nothing to please his teacher, were also among the nominated and certainly could have won based on cinematography.

Following the Oscars, Howard Stern took a moment on his live show to critique Birdman‘s Best Picture win, pointing out that Hollywood loves to see itself featured in movies and give itself accolades. I happen to agree with this assessment. Birdman was a good movie for showcasing, for lack of better words, Hollywood douchebaggery. The way that that characters were portrayed, the fantastical CGI sequences, and the cheeky references at pop culture peppered throughout the movie all made for a satirical tribute to Hollywood that the Academy ate up like snacks at the movie theater**.

But anyway, don’t get me wrong. Birdman was far from awful. It had great casting with Michael Keaton in the starring role and the familiar faces of Ed Norton, Emma Stone, and Zach Galifinakis in supporting roles. The movie poked fun at the whole industry, with Keaton playing washed-up action star Riggan Thomson. Thomson wanted to become a “serious” actor in the eyes of his colleagues by taking on a pet project on Broadway, an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and using much of his remaining fortune to guarantee the play’s success. Galifinakis played Jake, Thomson’s eternally flustered publicist, and Stone played Sam, Thomson’s sassy daughter who was brought in as a production assistant after finishing up a stint in rehab. Norton played Mike, a pretentious actor who Thomson and everyone else hoped would save the play after an on-set mishap put one of the original cast members out of commission. By the time the play hit its first previews, things quickly started spiraling back out of control, with Mike’s true colors coming out and family drama ensuing between Thomson, his daughter, and his ex-wife.

The movie was very much focused on Thomson’s trials and tribulations. Relationships with loved ones, colleagues, and the industry at large suffered as Thomson struggled to redeem himself in the eyes of many and make his play a success. Scenes featuring budding relationships between the other characters (e.g., Mike and Sam) were interesting, but disappointingly fleshed out. It was evident that these characters were there just to get caught up in the whirlwind of Thomson’s wacky life, but some parts were unnecessarily drawn out or included to seemingly make the movie longer than it needed to be.

As the movie progressed, the lines between reality and fantasy blurred, with nonsensical sequences of flying, explosions, and other CGI kicking into overdrive. Now, there are people out there who are going to say that all of this was symbolism, and, yeah, I got that. Birdman is Batman, a clever nod to Keaton’s real-life acting history. Keaton’s character was trying and failing to leave his past behind, essentially turning into his famous action hero character. All of that was good, if not for the use of special effects that became a little ridiculous to watch as the movie went on.

If you are planning on seeing a movie this weekend, Birdman is a fine choice but I would highly recommend seeing Whiplash instead. This movie might as well be mandatory viewing for current or former musicians, students of music, band/ensemble members, and/or music lovers; however, it is also for anyone who can appreciate and relate to the drive and determination that it takes to master a discipline. The intensity of the movie is something that cannot be described in words alone. The movie is technical in terms of its references to music terminology, but not in a way that would cause someone without this knowledge to get completely and totally lost in what is going on. Even if you can’t read music to know that the scores shown on the screen are very complex, you can certainly understand what it takes to read, understand, and play them based on what else is shown. The blood, sweat, and tears are graphically shown at parts that left me cringing (in a good way). Overall, I was very, very happy with the movie.

** As an aside, I am convinced that the long previews at the movies are designed in hope that you will lose your self-control and obliterate your popcorn as you are watching them. As preview after preview of tired superhero reboots, romantic comedies, and other movies that you don’t care about pass by, the theater hopes that, in boredom or frustration of waiting for the actual movie to finally start, you will eat through your snacks and be forced to take a trip back to the lobby to purchase more snacks for the start of the movie. And never mind the brief anxiety of hoping that nobody is going to think that you are sneaking back into the movie because you forgot to take your ticket with you. The tricky bastards.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars