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Birdman (2014)

Curtain Caw

If an actor dies on stage in an empty theatre, did he or she ever truly exist? This is one of the many weird but crucial questions at the heart of Alejandro Iñárritu's Birdman. Those looking for a thrilling and visually inventive exploration of the spirit that propels mankind into the unknown (and gets at the emotional core of its characters without requiring saintly patience from the audience) should skip Interstellar and head straight for the nearest art-house.

That's right, I recommend skipping a movie I recommended a few days ago. It all boils down to choice. I assume some of you are part of the heartbreaking number of moviegoers who don't get out to the movies much each year. If that's the case, you'll stretch your dollars and imagination much farther by experiencing this beautiful (if ultimately frustrating) look at a failed movie star's quest for both relevance and a reason to live.

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor who walked away from a mega-successful but creatively unsatisfying superhero-movie franchise twenty years ago. He now finds himself begging to be noticed in a media landscape he no longer understands. His idea of a brilliant comeback is starring in, directing, and re-writing a Raymond Carver story on Broadway. Saddled with crushing debt; a recovering-drug-addict daughter (Emma Stone); a difficult brand-name star (Edward Norton); and a warped conscience personified by his husky voiced, costumed alter ego, Thomson claws his way through the three days leading up to opening night.

At every turn, the people in Thomson's life challenge his long-held notions of artistry, humanity, and commerce. It's unclear (to us, but more importantly to him) whether or not he got into acting for the fame, the financial security, or as a path to self-validation. In the wake of this vision-starved pursuit is one failed marriage, two potentially sabotaged relationships with his leading ladies (Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts), and his own sanity: we meet Thomson in a dressing room, lost in meditation and hovering three feet off the floor. His powers multiply exponentially throughout the film, in direct contrast to his grip on reality.

Iñárritu and co-writers Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo imbue their characters with real dimension while also presenting them as walking, talking debate platforms. Norton's character is an egomaniac, but also a really talented performer who simultaneously cuts through Thomson's nonsense while fortifying the walls of his own insecurities. Lindsay Duncan pops up as a theatre critic with an axe to grind; her insights into art and commerce are just as searing as Thomson's assessment of her profession. The dialogue sprints along, racing to keep up with Emmanuel Lubezki's impossibly versatile camera and Antonio Sanchez's jazzy score. As a cinematic package, Birdman does more to immerse the audience in its whacked-out world than the artificial enhancements of 3D and IMAX.

Back to that camera. In case you haven't heard, Birdman is, on its surface, a gimmick movie: ninety-five percent of its 2-hour run-time is made to look like a single, seamless take. Like Boyhood before it, this film's making-of documentary will likely prove to be as fascinating as the end result. We fly effortlessly through the bowels of New York's St. James Theatre, up onto the stage, out the door and into Times Square, and back again. Hours pass in seconds; night morphs into day--all while maintaining the illusion of an unbroken, omniscient point of view. Lubezki wowed us last year with his work on Gravity; here, he applies his gifts for unhindered movement and access to an everyday world that becomes rich with alien discoveries.

This triumph alone would have been enough to place Birdman in my list of most interesting movies of the year. But the filmmakers are as insistent that we fall in love with their ideas as with the fancy production and top-notch performances. In the same way it took me a year to get used to "normal" novels after reading Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, Birdman has tainted the way I look movies--in a good way. Why can't every trip to the theatre feel this transportive, this rejuvenative in spirit?

I don't want to let Iñárritu and company off the hook here. The last ten minutes soar and dive like a drunken eagle, ultimately falling off a narrative cliff. Avoiding spoilers, I'll say that Riggan Thomson meets a perfect (if slightly predictable) fate in the climax. I could have lived with the outcome of his epic identity battle. But the film persists with a series of Return of the King endings that serve only to tack on and tack on and tack on, leading to a final shot that undoes all the delicious psychodrama that founded the climax. It's an attention grabbing shot, a "get them talking" shot, which works great for Birdman as a metaphor for its central figure--not so much for Birdman as an entertaining slice of profundity.

That's okay. In a world where art and imagination are absolutely everywhere, we are the makers of our own destinies and the fashioners of our wildest fantasies. The next time around, my all-powerful mind will press "STOP" when Birdman threatens to cease being a perfect cinematic experience.

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