The devils are loose in the church, taking up space that might be more deservedly used by others. This is the Broadway of “Birdman,” where theatre is an expensive diversion for tourists and rich New Yorkers. A washed-up actor who was famous for playing a superhero in a string of comic books movies sees Broadway as a street of redemption, where he can regain his soul by throwing everything he has into an adaptation of one of Raymond Carver’s pretentious stories. He is writer, star, and producer, and we see from the beginning of Alejandro Iñárritu’s sometimes brilliant, sometimes awful “Birdman” that everything about the play stinks.
It takes a little more time to realize the movie itself is no “Citizen Kane of the digital age,” as claimed by one over-zealous critic. The cinematography is atrocious. That it was nominated for an Oscar is in this department and “Mr. Turner” wasn’t is an abomination. The overuse of a shaky camera careening through hellish backstage corridors is a sloppy emulation of Kubrick’s steady-cam’s exploration of the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining.”
The script, although boasting several scenes revealing the artistic barrenness of every character, is ultimately unsatisfying due to a sense of ambiguity that resolves itself in a contradiction that children and feeble-minded adults can argue about until the next episode of “Star Wars” comes out to stir and challenge their powers of reason.
But there are truths in this hyper-active dungeon of a movie. Edward Norton’s innocuously named Mike, for example, is presented as a Great Actor, when it is clear he is an over-cooked ham who covers his inadequacies by bullying others. A lesser director would portray him this way from the start, but Iñárritu allows the character to impose his self-delusions on the audience until we realize he has no right to take up space on any stage, and that he represents an idiot generation of actors who have been defiling the art of acting for some decades.
Much of the sordid backstage activity will be familiar to anyone who has spent any time working in the theatre, and some of it is closer to reality than is perpetuated by most show business tales. For one thing, women are the true sexual predators in the theatre. Actors are generally more interested in manifesting their fake emotions on the stage than in a dressing room. Actresses tend to create emotional havoc in the wings until they are filled to bursting with passion, and then flood the shell of a deconstructed Hedda Gabler with their own petty negativity. Of course, this is a generalization, but so is the more common generalization of the actor as a Lothario.
Another thing Iñárritu gets right is the oppressiveness of the street outside the theatre, emphasized by the incessant noise of a street drummer. Despite its shortcomings, “Birdman” might be the best picture nominated for the Best Picture Oscar since 1998’s The Thin Red Line,” but there are at least ten non-nominated picture that are better. So whether or not it takes the top award is no measure of its quality. There are several factors working against it. Mainly, its anti-Hollywood attitude. To be sure, there is a measure of masochism among the decaying royalty of the Academy, but to call out the irredeemable mediocrity of the entertainment elite is no way to get your star on Hollywood Boulevard.
A better bet is Richard Linklater’s ploy of passing off a piece of derivative fluff that plays like a cross between “Leave it to Beaver” and The Up Series” as the most original cinematic event of the century. His pretense of originality supports Hollywood’s idea of itself as a bastion of high art without threatening its moronic essence, as “Birdman” does. There has been, however, enough critical backlash against “Birdman” to destabilize the threat factor, and to take its scornful attitude as a joke.
“Birdman” is likely to have its greatest appeal for those Michael Keaton fans eager to applaud his comeback, while “Boyhood” draws a crowd that might be wondering what Patricia Arquette has been up to the last fifteen years. At first, we might assume that the cheer-leaders for “Boyhood” are a younger lot than those on the side of “Birdman,” but, although Arquette is 17 years Keaton’s junior, her glory years (1992-98) directly follow Keaton’s (1988-92), so their appeal should be roughly to the same generation, Then there is the Elijah Smith factor. Smart enough to keep his age a secret, this non-actor has massive teen appeal, which gives “Boyhood” the youth edge over the crustier “Birdman,” despite the tenuous appeal of Emma Stone, who is also much older than she looks.
So what will it be come Sunday? Personally, I am rooting for “American Sniper.” But even though Clint Eastwood is possibly the only director in Hollywood who knows how to do his job, does he really deserve to be honored ever ten or so years? My guess is that the devils who are loose in the church will say “No.”