Inarritu Finds His Wings, Riggan Falls Flat (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman)

Inarritu’s visual symphony aims for the stars, but the burden of a tedious central character sends it plummeting back to Earth.  The result is an intense and frequently stunning, yet ultimately exhausting  experience.

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“There’s nothing here about technique! There’s nothing in here about structure! There’s nothing in here about intentions! It’s just a bunch of crappy opinions, backed up by even crappier comparisons,” faded movie star Riggan (Michael Keaton) retorts to esteemed theater critic Tabitha (the ever-excellent Lindsay Duncan).  In a display of power and petty resentment, Tabitha has cast professional ethics aside, deciding in advance to pan his virgin foray into the cruel world of Broadway.  Or maybe she just likes watching him sweat.

I wish I could say the same.

There can be no denying that technique is masterful throughout Birdman, a meticulously well-crafted piece of filmmaking, with some high-caliber performances, and virtuoso cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki that strives to elevate the work to the highest echelons of cinema.

At times the form is subtly audacious and enthralling, as we watch complex action unfold around a mobile camera in perfectly executed extended takes (the whole movie appears seamless), at others the form becomes conspicuous and self-consciously spectacular, soaring awkwardly into the realms of magical realism.    The melding of styles is visually exciting, but is the content worthy of the form?

Birdman, ostensibly a satire, is essentially a portrait of an unlikeable character: “entitled, selfish, spoiled,”  as Tabitha nails it.  So far so good.  Alas, Birdman is also a portrait of an uninteresting character.  In an interview published in Variety, Inarritu speaks of his desire in making the film to create an “inescapable reality” and take the audience with him.  This is exactly where we spend the next two hours: trapped inside Riggan’s head.  Unfortunately he is a nauseating bore.

A man of few redeeming qualities, Riggan is so self-obsessed he is incapable of perceiving a world beyond his own petty problems.  He is even a failure as a narcissist, lacking the charisma to captivate a dazzled circle of admirers .  Guided by his ego and indeed his alter-ego in the form of the Batman-like Birdman, Keaton spits through his performance as Riggan lurches from one delusional tantrum to the next, with little discernible character arc beyond growing desperation and a faltering grip on reality.

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Perhaps the only good thing to be said about Riggan, is that he doesn’t lack courage when it comes to putting his own neck on the line – if only as part of his overarching, immature quest for external validation.  Teetering on the verge of a possible comeback, Riggan is hoping to gain universal acclaim for his adaptation, direction and performance, showcased in a new play based on a Raymond Carver story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

It is a bold risk.  But Riggan’s comeback is the definition of a vanity project, which is what irks Tabitha so. He chooses Carver not for his admiration of Carver’s talent, but for Carver’s supposed admiration of his.  A (possibly drunk) Carver once flattered Riggan when he appeared in a juvenile production, by sending a signed note on a cocktail napkin praising his “honest performance”, thus causing Riggan’s talents to soar in his own estimation.

As broadway actor and critics’ darling Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) astutely posits – or possibly borrows from some contemporary tweeting version of Dorothy Parker, given the prevalence of technology in the film – “popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige”.  Riggan is a man who has given up massive popularity, hoping to exchange it for prestige, but never making the grade.  Brave?  Foolish?  He tries to rectify this with the supposed authenticity of the theater.  An association Tabitha believes he has not earned: “You’re no actor, you’re a celebrity. Let’s be clear on that,” she chides him.

Birdman does not lack for humor and wit, and could perhaps best be classified as a black comedy.  The dialogue is often gratingly crass but littered with gems such as “how do you know Mike?”… “We share a vagina.” However, on balance, these comedic elements offer only temporary relief from the intense claustrophobia of being stuck with Riggan through the course of his meltdown.  This sensation is enhanced by the ambitious musical score featuring Antonio Sanchez’s frenetic jazz drumming, which is both impressive and effective, yet becomes increasingly abrasive.

As the flowing camera tracks through the corridors of the dingy theater or along the bustling streets of New York City, I couldn’t help wishing it would change tack and spend the rest of the film following one of the supporting characters, or float off into those city streets and find a compelling character with a fascinating story.  There is certainly a world of contrast between the lead characters in Birdman and Inarritu’s 2010 portrait film “Biutiful”.  Javier Bardem’s gut-wrenching performance as the complex, flawed and compassionate Uxbal blows this bird out of the water, exposing Riggan by comparison as fundamentally shallow and dull.

As for Keaton’s performance, the near-universal praise he has received is not unmerited.  It would be easy to underestimate the rigor demanded by the technical challenges involved in shooting extended takes with an ever-moving camera and no room for editing.  And he is entirely convincing as the deeply tedious, insecure actor, trying to make the most of what he secretly fears may be mediocre talents.  But Riggan’s pathetic tantrums, which involve shouting and throwing things (telekinetically or otherwise) are all one-note, and it is telling that when Norton’s Mike Shiner has his own tantrum, he steals the show.

Norton is excellent as incendiary method actor Shiner, infuriatingly more intelligent, talented and younger than Riggan, having already attained that elusive prestige.  Like Riggan he is an egotist, but Shiner is driven to relentlessly push for the authentic moment in ways Riggan initially can’t even imagine.  Typically this involves offending people, shocking them, or frightening them.

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Riggan & Shiner square off

In a memorable scene that also serves as a metaphor for many elements of the movie, Shiner engages with Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone) in a little game of truth or dare.  Danger and truth are a lifestyle for Shiner, ‘the real deal’ at least on stage, which he claims is all that is real for him.  Apparently it is the only time he can get hard.  When he seemingly makes an unsuccessful attempt to rape his girlfriend on-stage during a performance, Shiner’s aim has nothing to do with rape and everything to do with eliciting adrenaline and genuine fear.

This brutal methodology undeniably gets results for Shiner – after all, an “honest” performance is a holy grail for “serious” actors – but what of Riggan’s process?  If there is any character development, it might be found here.  His acting in the play at first seems borderline bad, but improves with each rehearsal, as he become increasingly unhinged offstage.  He certainly learns a few things from Shiner, and attempts to imitate and even outdo him towards the end of the story.

The space of the theater itself is shown as a self-contained world which, Birdman growls, “smells like balls.”  This olfactory dud is really a sanctuary for Riggan, where he generally can be the center of attention and gets to be, if not idolized, at least indulged by those around him.  These accommodating “theater pussies” include Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Laura (Andrea Riseborough), as Shiner and Riggan’s girlfriends respectively.

Riseborough in particular has fun with her character, and despite being Riggan’s lover she is able to take life’s ups and downs more lightly than the tortured actor and those caught up in his aura.  “I wish I had more self-respect,” Lesley laments after Shiner’s hair-raising assault; Laura’s reply is simple: “You’re an actress.”  Most understated is Zac Galifianakis, bringing a calm, reassuring presence to Riggan’s loyal, long-suffering friend and lawyer Jake.

Stone is outstanding in the strong cast as Riggan’s 20-something, recovering addict daughter Sam.  A tough new Yorker, with the requisite bird and arrow tattoos, stick-thin frame, leather jacket and tousled blond rock-hair, she is always low-key.  Despite or perhaps because of her troubles, Sam emanates an inner confidence that makes her seem the adult in her relationship with Riggan, and more than a match for Shiner with whom she ignites some fiery chemistry.

Stone is undeniably sexy in the role, but her body hovers worryingly close to anorexia, a physical transformation that seems to make her eyes huge in her face, not unlike a treefrog.  Lubezki’s cinematography  wisely capitalizes on this bug-eyed look which gives her the appearance of struggling to contain a thousand ineffable things.  This culminates in the iconic final shot of the movie, where she enters a state of rapture, an example of the sublime in cinema that stands on a par with the masters (Herzog, Kieslowski, Dryer) and as such would be worthy of a much more profound movie.

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And here is the essential problem with the work: much as it strives to transcend the mundane it remains mired there.  The magical realism is heavy-handed, slugging the audience in the face with unearned metaphorical meaning.  Birdman opens with Riggan in his dressing room, casually levitating, in a shot reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006).  This would seem suggest a spirituality about the character, perhaps a calm and oneness with the world.  If anything, it can only be read as a sign of Riggan’s delusion, later expressed in as many words as he literally flies over the city, that he is above ordinary mortals, looking down on them.  A god, even.  This is where we find him, and also exactly where we leave him.

Sam’s rapture at the movie’s close seems counter-intuitive, because of all the characters, Sam is most aware of her fathers’ spiritual bankruptcy.  The only meaningful actions he takes towards his daughter in the movie are betrayals of the most terrible kind.  In one scene, Riggan’s desperate quest for relevance is brutally outlined by Sam: “let’s face it, Dad, it’s not forthe sake of art. It’s because you want to feel relevant again. Well, there’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn’t even exist! … You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what?  You’re right.”

I must admit that by the end, I found it impossible to care what happened to Riggan.  The denouement felt like kind of a cheap shot, and I had a feeling I’d seen this all somewhere before.  That said, given Riggan’s apparent hallucinations, and the numerous visual metaphors and allusions in the film, it is certainly a juicy treat for those who enjoy analyzing and delving into theories of meaning.

Suffice to say, the magical events we experience are witnessed only by Riggan himself, until the final scene, where something has changed.  Suicide is a constant specter in the film, referenced in scene after scene, and in much of the film’s more abstract imagery.  The idea of self-annihilation has particular relevance to nirvana-seeking Buddhists and truth-seeking actors, and as such one might interpret this as Riggan’s quest.  But I never had the sense Riggan was the spiritual type, and when his ex Sylvia (Amy Ryan) tells him he “confuses love for admiration” she reveals his tragic flaw and the banal quest he will sacrifice anything to pursue.

Many will hail Birdman as proof that Inuarito is a genius.  And perhaps it is.  But when all is said and done, I came back to that conversation between Riggan and Tabitha.

Riggan asks “Did I did something to offend you?”

Tabitha replies “As a matter of fact, you did. You took up space on a theater which otherwise might have been used on something worthwhile.”

Though overly harsh, I can relate to her sentiments.  Given this is an outstanding piece of filmmaking I wish Inarritu, Keaton et all had directed their considerable effort and undeniable talent into a more interesting character or at least allowed this one to take wing and soar to a heightened awareness.

Since I’ve devoted so much energy to bashing his (lack of) character, and shown no kindness to the fragile soul, perhaps it is only fair that I let Riggan have the last word – although with the caveat that there are no wrinkles on this bird, man.

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 “You write a couple of paragraphs and you know what?  None of this cost you fuckin’ anything!  The Fuck!  You risk nothing! Nothing! This play cost me everything!  So I tell you what, you take this fucked-up malicious cowardly shittily written review and you shove that right the fuck up your wrinkly tight ass.”

American Hustle: Over-Comb with Emotion

In David O. Russell’s warm-hearted and hilarious film, con-artists Sydney and Irving are lovers entrapped by an ambitious FBI agent and forced to participate in a far-reaching sting.  The action goes down in a lurid 1970s New Jersey teeming with sexual tension and Serious Hair.

 Christian Bale;Amy Adams;Bradley Cooper

In American Hustle’s opening scene, the inimitable Russell presents us with a strangely enthralling spectacle: conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale in his latest physical transformation) preparing his comb-over in a suite at New York’s Plaza Hotel.  When Irving’s partner-in-crime and lover Sydney later describes said comb-over as ‘elaborate’, she kindly understates the case: this is surely the mother of all comb-overs.

A partially bald, paunchy man in a velvet suit, Irving sports unruly back-combed rat-tails protruding from his dome in every direction to form an unsightly Medusa’s garland.   To address this unfortunate reality, he applies what appears to be a merkin to his exposed pate.  This being The Seventies in all its hideous glory, it could perhaps be a piece cut from an afro wig.  Still, it is short and curly, so draw your own conclusions.  Through a fascinating process involving glue and persistence, he achieves the seemingly impossible, ultimately resolving the hair situation admirably, even heroically.

Comedic value aside, I have the nagging feeling a key to the film is hidden amongst the characters’ uniformly over-prepared locks.  Suffice to say this movie raises the question of whether it is possible for hair to be epic, and it is nothing short of a travesty that American Hustle wasn’t nominated for best makeup and hairstyling at this year’s Academy Awards.  Throughout the film, Russell shows us characters constructing their identities with their hair, and all the inherent vulnerability this entails.

The opening sequence mercilessly exposes our romantic lead to the point where he becomes an object of ridicule.  Did I say romantic lead?  American Hustle is an exuberant, entertaining, wickedly funny con movie on the surface, but Russell has given us love story on the sly: a deeply romantic film and humane film in the guise of a caper.

As the scene continues, we introduce the Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, outstanding, in a film where the performances are excellent across the board) and Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) completing the film’s first love-triangle.  The unlikely threesome are getting ready for a high-stakes meeting at the Plaza Hotel.  Blood is running high.  Tempers flare.  Comb-overs are dislodged.  Violence is a heartbeat away.  The other cheek is turned in another easily overlooked heroic act.  And we go back, back, back to the beginning.

The beginning, is… when just a whippersnapper, Irving started smashing windows around town to drum up business for his father, an honest window salesman.  ‘From the ground up’ he became a different kind of man from his father.  A sleazebag, or an unlikely hero?  A dishonest man willing to exploit people to get ahead?  Indeed.  A man taking control of his own destiny?  Certainly.  A corrupt man helping the people he cares about in the most pragmatic way?  Undoubtedly.  In particular, Irving is a man who is constantly underestimated and frequently reduced to a caricature by people who aren’t really paying attention.

The beginning, is… when Sydney and Irving meet at a suburban party in New Jersey… Bale lets it all hang out here.  He is an overweight, sweaty, badly dressed, balding man.  Yet as Sydney says, she fell for him because he was entirely himself, and entirely comfortable with himself.  Something Sydney believes she is not, though her actions show her otherwise.

She likes Irving and accepts him as he is. They bond over Duke Ellington.  Later, he takes her to his dry cleaners, where she tries on clothing and with them identities (a recurring theme in Russell’s work), for she feels she can be so much more than what she is.  They share a tender moment leading to a soulful kiss as clothing swirls around them on a seemingly infinite rack. What we have is the beginning of an extraordinary romance.  A story of survival, and kindred spirits.

As with the comb-over, necessity is the mother of invention.  Our lovers are deeply grounded in their acceptance of reality, and their relationship is real and adult.  Accepting Irving as he is means Sydney must accept Irving as a married man.  Accepting Irving as a con artist means she must reinvent herself as the charming and aristocratic Lady Edith.  She talks about choices when you come from a place with limited options.  We see her choice was to work on stage in a strip club.  Sometimes, she tells us, it felt sexy, “There’s a boldness to it.”  And bold is sexy, as the movie goes on to show.  Fashion notwithstanding, we have at least three characters with big hearts, and big cojones to match.

Irving and Sydney choose to steal from desperate people.  The film doesn’t address the moral questions this raises except Sydney’s suggestion that these are not good people and consequently don’t have good karma.  Karma must be immediate for Irving, who rips off acquaintances in his own neighborhood.  But even closer to home, he is an honest man, with a generous heart which has seen him adopt the son of former single mother and wife Rosalyn.

Rosalyn is a woman entirely different from Sydney – divorced from reality, ungenerous – but like agent DiMaso, though she may not have a big heart, she is endowed with balls of steel.   This is a woman who uses her child as leverage over Irving, whom she feels infinitely superior to.  This despite the fact he is constantly putting himself on the line to provide for their family, whereas Rosalyn contributes next to nothing, and is so careless she is always one step away from burning the house down.

Rosalyn believes she is smarter than she is, and acts in the most harmful way, feeling – sometimes understandably – that she has the moral right.   A deeply toxic woman, yet warm, appealing, sexy, and charming, as played in an inspired performance by Jenifer Lawrence.  She makes Rosalyn a great comedic character, vivid and vital and clumsy.  Whether obsessing about the smell of nail lacquer topcoats, or seething in an encounter with Sydney, she is never less than compelling.  Eventually, there is redemption and a fresh start for Rosalyn.

But, back once more to the beginning, which is… when Sydney and Irving are entrapped by an ambitious FBI agent, and he gives them a choice.  A very limited choice, as the other option is jail, but a choice nonetheless.  Enter stage left: the fake sheik.   Agent Di Maso recruits the couple to work undercover in a sting operation that eventually draws in all sorts of powerful players, from prominent politicians to mobsters, and most notably another flawed hero, a ‘corrupt’ mayor fighting passionately for his constituency in the most pragmatic way.  Mayor Carmen Polito eventually becomes the moral center of the movie, and Irving’s chickens come home to roost when he must face up to his betrayal of this kindred spirit.

When they first meet, Sydney feels an initial attraction to DiMaso, but we are left guessing as to her true motivations as the film progresses.  I think Sydney gives us enough information.  While he manages to use extreme stress techniques to drive something of a wedge between Sydney and Irving, hell and high water are surely nothing new to her.  Sydney is comfortable using her sex appeal to get what she wants – it’s a simple trap for suckers, and deeply pragmatic Sydney is never above using it.  In fact, Sydney’s uniquely seductive wardrobe forms a hilarious running joke throughout American Hustle.

It is interesting to note the original title was ‘American Bullshit’.  That would never do justice to the sincerity of the characters, liars one and all, in this unique and entertaining film.  More than just a con, Hustle was the dance of 1970s America, the strut of Saturday Night Fever, the hot move of a generation of people trying to become something bigger.  But despite all the brazen hustle and bustle, and the nod and a wink at Scorcese, it is authenticity which wins through.