Alejandro G. Inarritu‘s Birdman (Fox Searchlight, 10.17), an audacious, darkly hilarious serving of snap-crackle brilliance and psychological excavation par excellence, blew the roof off the Werner Herzog theatre last night. I was giddy, ecstatic, swooning as I half-stumbled into the night air…so was almost everyone I spoke to about it over the next two or three hours. Okay, not everyone but those who were hungry and adventurous and receptive enough to revel in a work of reaching, swirling genius…pig heaven!
Like I said on Twitter last night, it’s an all-but-guaranteed Oscar nominee in several categories — Best Picture, Best Director (Inarritu), Best Actor (Michael Keaton), Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Edward Norton), Best Supporting Actress (Emma Stone), Best Cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki), Best Editing, etc.
Birdman is not just a visual groundbreaker — not actually a single seamless, roving Steadicam shot from start to finish but a wonderful illusion of this. It’s more profoundly a searcher, reacher and a mad leaper of a film with one live-wire, mad-rodent performance after another. Everyone sings and dances and somersaults in this tag-team circus but Keaton is the leader and the daddy. He opens himself up and slices in like a surgeon in an awesome, at times unsettling tour de force. Whether he wins the Best Actor Oscar or not, you can absolutely call him the Comeback Kid.
And I’m barely mentioning the twitchy, hair-trigger aliveness of Norton, Stone and Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan and Naomi Watts. Not to mention a pleasurably toned-down Zach Galifianakis minus the man-diaper. I’ve despised each and every performance ZG has given previously so this was a revelation — I actually respected and enjoyed his anxious, screwed-down theatrical producer.
Birdman is about Riggan Thomson (Keaton), a has-been Hollywood actor who was quite hot in the ’80s and ’90s, especially after portraying the mythical Birdman, a winged superhero, in three effects-driven, ComicCon-friendly blockbusters about same, but whose fortunes declined after he “said no to Birdman 4” — essentially a Keatonesque self-portrait. Thomson is now struggling to make a kind of artistic comeback in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver‘s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
All the fears and anxieties that plague every artist or would-be artist who has ever tried to expand his/her repertoire are crawling all over Thomson like insects. Everyone is on him or in him — pushy costar Mike Shiner (Norton), his angry daughter (Stone), ex-wife (Ryan), girlfriend (Riseborough). He peaked 20 years ago, is “over” in 20th Century terms (unknown or marginal in the eyes of under-25s, no Twitter or Facebook accounts), is self-loathing and emotionally unstable in fits and starts, admitting to having been a lousy dad, panicking about the play being an embarassment or panned by the N.Y. Times or both…no comfort, stomach acid, teetering on the edge.
Birdman is one of the most antsy, emotionally exposed, drill-down big-city comedies I’ve ever experienced, and probably the most transcendent, spirit-lifting film I’ve seen this century with Children of Men running a close second. It’s actually more of a psychological angst-and-anxiety movie with an infusion of Ingmar Bergman enzymes and occasional hyena laughs. It’s not a laugh riot per se but when it connects it’s fall-on-the-floor.
And yet Birdman is (and I love this aspect) fundamentally a New York-centric flick about the state of current creative aspirations and values, and a film that hates the fleeting, Twitter-propelled consciousness that defines almost everything today. It’s in love with the real-deal gleam and glimmer of the Broadway stage and the tough, anxious performers who put themselves on the line in front of discerning audiences…all that romantic All About Eve smell-of-the-crowd lore fast-forwarded 65 years. It follows that Birdman despises the Hollywood that has manifested over the last 20 or 25 years — a town of ADD, effects-driven, ComicCon-catering swill merchants. So don’t kid yourself — this is a nervy anti-Hollywood movie that the status-quo clingers and comfort-seekers are probably going to shy away from or regard from a certain distance.
A movie this audacious and groundbreaking and wonderfully challenging, a movie this smart and nervy and go-for-broke-ish…well, we know what kind of reception awaits, don’t we? If you’ve seen Amadeus you know its virtues are going to be undervalued by and perhaps even lost on the Salieris in our midst. The Salieris and particularly the Emperor Joseph II’s of Austria who will watch Birdman and stroll into the megaplex lobby and say to their well-off, Porsche Cayenne-driving friends, “Very good, very lively!…but perhaps too many notes.”
I heard more than a few reactions last night from comfort-blanket types. Some were apparently un-nerved by the constantly-moving, no-visible-edit Steadicam feeling. Some felt that the anti-Hollywood currents along with psychological edge-of-darkness atmosphere was not to their particular liking. Some felt that the dark, vaguely inconclusive ending left them in a funny place. (For a depressing analysis of this, read Scott Feinberg’s Hollywood Reporter piece.) Many more safe-haven types, it seemed last night, were declaring their love for The Imitation Game — a sad, handsome, impressively acted World War II period drama about a misunderstood, tragically under-appreciated genius.
Birdman is awesomely Mozartian. The Imitation Game isn’t a Salieri film — it’s a smooth, satisfying, highly accomplished drama of its type, one that I respect quite a lot — but it’s being championed right now by the Salieri descendants.
Trust me — those who are more into excitation and freshness and cliff-leaping thrills were off-the-ground about Birdman last night, and I’m telling you right now that the Birdman wars are going to generate a lot of ink between now and early December.