“Birdman” is worthy of Best Picture

by Andrew Kingsley | 3/1/15 6:11pm

How can you say “break a leg” to an actor who already has a broken heart, a shattered psyche and a fractured family life without it being a cruel joke? Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), the lead in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s four-time Academy-Award-winning, including Best Picture “Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” (2014), is that actor, the washed-up movie star salivating for a shot back in the limelight. Himself a former superhero star — Keaton played Batman in Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989) and “Batman Returns” (1992) — the role is fittingly mimetic. With crow’s feet the size of talons and referring to himself as a “turkey with leukemia,” Thomson is like Birdman without feathers; vulnerable to the cold of an icy, unsympathetic populous, his goose seems nearly cooked.

The film begins with Thomson levitating in his underwear, achieving some sort of Zen-like state before his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) shatters his only peace, screaming through Skype about a flower market smelling like kimchi. This jolt begins the domino chain that is the movie, as it moves nonstop in seemingly one take — which won it the 2015 Oscar for best cinematography — through two hours of preparing and staging Thompson’s first Broadway play, an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Aggressive, frenetic and shark-like, the movie, like Thompson himself, must keep moving to survive. Schizophrenic in pace, this relentless visual idiom is the obvious analog to Thompson’s unstable mind. Because the cuts between shots are so seamless, we get the sense that Thomson never blinks and is wired and hyper-vigilant to a world so close to collapse. The film could easily be renamed to “Birdman: Death of a Salesman 2” or “Birdman: Portrait of the Deranged Artist as a Decaying Middle-Aged Man.”

As if the battle between ego, superego and id raging in his mind wasn’t enough, Thompson is surrounded and suffocated by a band of hysterical, petulant actors who stoke the flames of his crashing, burning spirit. After Thompson’s main actor gets knocked out by a stage light, the epigrammatically pithy, Hallmark Card-esque wiseass Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) of Broadway lore shows up at his doorstep, promising fame and fortune, but brings disaster as only a diva can. Breathing down Thompson’s neck is the caricaturized critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), a raisiny, aquiline, morose shrew with her chin tilting in judgment, who promises to kill Thompson’s play in The New York Times. Thompson retaliates in true Birdman style, obliterating her with a verbal fireball and ensuring that no critic will give the film a bad review.

Keaton himself delivers the goods, wavering between whimpering simp and monomaniacal superman. Literally haunted by his Birdman alter ego, which demands he make a comeback in “Birdman 4: The Phoenix Rises,” leaving all the theatre snobs behind to reclaim his movie star status. A film about the state of filmmaking, “Birdman” curtly captures the increasing contrivance in cinema today, as Thomson puts it — “They love this s---. They love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing philosophical bulls---.” In an age when fame and talent is measured in likes, upvotes and tweets, Thomson still wants to be a classical Olivier, but ends up being an absurd, Kafkaesque nihilist. Luckily, Thomson is original and entertaining enough to please both the Tabitha Dickinsons like myself and the pimple faced gamers of the world.

So how did “Birdman” win best picture? Historically, mimetic films that reflect upon the filmmaking process or cinematic culture do very well with critics, such as “Sunset Boulevard” (1950), “Vertigo”(1958), “8½” (1963), “Day for Night” (1973) or “Adaptation”(2002). “Birdman” dissects fame, stardom, ego, the nosy press, agents, cutthroat lawyers, art direction and divas under the rare genre of superhero dark comedy drama. For its novelty, reflexivity, cinematography and brilliant performances, “Birdman” is a worthy best picture winner in my mind. Then again, I’m just a snobbish Tabitha Dickinson. I mean, just look at the list of films I just rattled off. So go see for yourself why “Birdman” got cinema’s most coveted golden idol.

Rating: 10/10“Birdman” is now playing at The Nugget every day at 4:50 p.m. and 6:50 p.m., with additional 9:10 showings on Friday and Saturday and 1:40 showings on Saturday and Sunday.