The Oscars have long been criticized as being out of touch for everything from the masturbatory glitz to the selection of each actual award. None receive more attention and examination than the politically-driven selection of the highly coveted Best Picture.
I was fairly excited to see “Birdman,” which stars Michael Keaton, take the top spot. It seemed surreal and cerebral and looked to be filled with many long takes, but I failed to anticipate the rather shallow message the movie expounded, which explains its political selection by the voters of the Academy Awards.
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” is about Riggan Thomson (Keaton), a washed-up actor who, decades prior to the film, played the dark, gravely-voiced superhero, Birdman. Although he is no longer relevant in Hollywood, or anywhere really, he pours his heart, soul and wallet into a Broadway play he has adapted and directs and stars in.
Thomson desperately wants to be appreciated, just as the movie itself does. They are very much one and the same. The major contention of “Birdman” is the disparity of West vs. East, Hollywood vs. New York, lowbrow vs. high art.
Thomson and “Birdman” present many gimmicks to demonstrate they are clever and provocative, all the while praying you’ll exalt them as “truly artistic.”
In one scene, Thomson confronts Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), the devastatingly powerful New York theater critic who has the ability to make or break his play. She explicitly tells him that she will destroy him and the production simply because she doesn’t like him and doesn’t like what he represents: the ignorant low culture of celebrity trying to nose their way into a world where they do not belong.
Then, of course, Thomson is allowed a drunken and self-righteous speech defying her unfair judgment and condescension of him. Thomson manages to even get her to change her mind thanks to the power of his final gimmick, although it is arguably quite tragic.
It’s a little too much on the nose.
This is the sort of movie that wins Oscars, particularly Best Picture. Hollywood loves movies that are about them, and especially movies that justify their already dying relevance. The bizarre rituals of self-worship present in the Academy Awards can only be most explained with a movie about a rich white Hollywood actor being soothed and comforted that he’s just as paramount as he’s always suspected.
Individually, the gimmicks of “Birdman” can be appreciated. The long takes can be quite engaging. The use of monochromatic light provides visual variation.
The performances, too, are quite strong. Keaton has long been a favorite actor of mine, and his performance in “Birdman” is no different. He is a skillful performer and one who is always enjoyable to watch. Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough are amusing as the play’s cast, giving some much needed attention to neurotic, self-absorbed theater people.
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“Birdman” wants really badly to be “art with a capital A.” The question is whether or not something that is both self-aware and self-conscious can still achieve that. There is much to take from the movie visually and from the actors themselves.
So if the big picture bothers you too much, “Birdman” might be a little hard to swallow.
Graham Gentz is a theater and movie reviewer for the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DailyLobo.