"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

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Mind the Generation Gap: While We're Young, A Review

THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!

Just begging to be punched!!

Just begging to be punched!!

A few weeks ago, a delicately beautiful young woman approached me and asked if I wanted to go to the movies with her. "What movie do you want to see?" I asked. "I want to laugh" she said, "let's go see Ben Stiller in While We're Young".  After an extended uncomfortable silence, I dryly retorted, "I thought you said you wanted to laugh."  I had zero interest in seeing While We're Young for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is that I have an instinctive, gut-level impulse to punch both of the male actors in the film, Ben Stiller and Adam Driver, right in their stupid, idiotic, oh-so-punchable faces. Add to that the fact that I have a pretty strong revulsion to much of writer/director Noah Baumbach's previous work, The Squid and the Whale being the lone and notable exception, and you have a recipe for a nasty case of movie rage on my part. But when a charming young woman asks me to a movie, even a movie I don't want to see, who the hell am I to say no? As I do with all beautiful women, I relented to her request. And so we were off to the theatre to see While We're Young

Chalk it up to low expectations, or the attractive lady on my arm, but While We're Young actually won me over. I know, I know, I am just as surprised as you are about this turn of events. I mean, watching Ben Stiller and Adam Driver for an hour and a half sounds more like some heinous form of torture banned by the U.N. rather than a form of entertainment I'd pay for, but gosh darn it if those two punchable asshats didn't pull it off.

Oh so punchable!!

Oh so punchable!!

Now you may be wondering why I am so strongly repulsed by Stiller and Driver. This is a good question, and I can honestly tell you that I have no idea. Or at least I am not consciously aware of why they irritate me so much.  I've never met them or heard a bad word about either of them personally from anyone I know who knows them. I've actually even enjoyed some Ben Stiller films in the past too, although I can't name them off the top of my head and don't want to waste my mental energy searching the dark recesses of my mind trying to find them. Regardless of why I feel the way I do, I do feel it. There is just something about the both of them and their dopey, moronic faces that quickly triggers the punch reflex in me. I readily acknowledge this is much more an indictment of me than of them. (Although to be fair to Adam Driver, I have that same "punch reflex" reaction to every single person who has ever appeared on the show Girls, or who has ever even watched the show Girls, or has even thought about watching the show Girls. I don't like the show Girls, just wanted to make that clear. That said, I am not exactly Girls target audience, so if I did like Girls, Girls would probably be doing it wrong.)

Now that my irrational Stiller/Driver hate has been outed and explored, you can have some sense of what an accomplishment it is for Baumbach, Stiller and Driver to get me to like their movie. It is an accomplishment of Herculean proportions. How did they do it? Let's take a look, shall we?

While We're Young is the story of New York based documentary filmmaker Josh (Ben Stiller) and his producer wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts), both of whom are in their forties and childless.  Josh and Cornelia are losing all of their friends their own age to parenthood and are struggling to maintain their identities as artists and creative, cool people. Then they meet aspiring documentarian Jamie (Adam Driver) and his girlfriend Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a young hipster couple in their twenties who reignite Josh and Cornelia's zest for life and creative living. Through Jamie and Darby, Josh and Cornelia are born again hipsters. Josh wears a hipster hat like Jamie, and Cornelia takes hip-hop dance class with Darby.  

The story of While We're Young is straightforward enough, it is the tale of all of us as we age and try to stay current, cool and relevant. This is a fools errand of course, but that doesn't stop us from trying anyway. What made While We're Young resonate with me is that it very closely resembled my own life's journey, or at least my artistic life's journey. Stiller's Josh is a Brooklynite, a self tortured artist, and he worships his art with a religious reverence. I am guilty on all counts (although I have relocated my existential angst from Brooklyn, the city of my birth, to Los Angeles, the city of my death…most likely). The film not only mimicked my experience, but understood it and, at a very deep level, respected it. That is a great credit to director Baumbach, who is of my generation and shares a similar temperament, taste and worldview. He may have cut me to the bone with his insightful look at Josh's/my life, but he did it with surgical precision and I tip my hipster cap to him for it.

The generational struggle, be it Gen X'ers versus Baby Boomers, or Millennials versus Gen X'ers, is cyclical. The struggling artistic purist of today will be replaced with the corporate crowd pleaser of tomorrow. It happened to the baby boomers, it happened to the Gen X'ers and it has already happened with the millennials. But there are always holdouts from each generation. Like Japanese soldiers on remote Pacific Islands who never knew that World War Two had ended, so it is with the generational holdouts. I know because I am one of them, and so it Stiller's Josh.  We are true believers and we have such a respect and reverence for great art that we are exhilarated when we see a talented and equally, in our eyes, honorable artist in a younger generation, and indignantly horrified when we see the sellout, faux artists in that same generation, or any other generation. This is the struggle of the purist. For reasons too elaborate to get into here, Generation X is a group with a higher Purist ratio than other generations, and with Millennials, it seems as though Purists are a rare breed, and a nearly extinct one at that. Although the reality is much more likely to be that there are probably just as many Millennial Purists as there are Gen X Purists, but due to the seismic shift toward corporatism in the creative economy over the last twenty-five years, they are much, much harder to find. With this in mind, the two generations are wonderfully represented in While We're Young by Stiller's Josh (Gen X) and Driver's Jamie (Millennials).

This generational struggle is what I think will make While We're Young interesting for all sorts of people, not just Brooklynite artistic purists like myself. Releasing the mantle of being one of the cool people to the younger generation who are, by definition, the cool ones now, can be a catastrophic event for some people's ego and identity. But that doesn't make it any less inevitable. This is the story of While We're Young, this is the story of me, this is the story of everyone, sooner or later, whether we like to acknowledge it or not.

As for the rest of the film, it is well made. I laughed out loud quite a bit, or to put it in terms the kids use today I "lol'd". (See how cool I am, kids? I know all the lingo! Kids? Kids? Why are you rolling your eyes and laughing at me? I'm hip…I'm not jive!!) Stiller is excellent, creating not just a character, but a real person, who is at once frustratingly stubborn yet genuine and endearing. Naomi Watts, as usual, gives a solid performance. Her Cordelia is vibrant and carries a palpable wound that gives her a strength and a fragile charm.

Adam Driver is…good. He uses his unlikability to his great advantage in the film. I'm not supposed to feel completely at ease with Jamie, or to completely like him…and I don't. So mission accomplished. This helps drive the story and Driver is a great foil for Stiller to play off.  Driver, who is tall, with a commanding physical presence and a goofy confidence, paired with Stiller who is short, neurotic and desperately desperate, makes for a fantastically and uncomfortably poor pairing, which is why it works so well.

Amanda Seyfried is an actress I always enjoy watching, and she is interesting and very compelling here as Darby but is terribly under used. The film focuses more on Josh and Jaime than it does on Cordelia and Darby, which works out fine in the end, but I did wish I saw more of Watts and Seyfried…maybe because I like them very much as actors and don't want to punch them like I do with their male co-stars. Regardless, I think there is great potential for a similar film to be made from the female perspective.

In conclusion, While We're Young was a very pleasant surprise. It is a genuinely funny, interesting and painfully honest film that keeps you engaged and laughing. Like me, you may only be laughing at yourself because the films bare bones honesty makes you so very uncomfortable, but you will be laughing nonetheless.  

Oh…and one more thing. This is very difficult to type with my fists clenched so tightly but…a job well done by Ben Stiller and Adam Driver. You both did excellent work in the film, and I respect your talent. I offer this to you both...I cannot promise to try not to want to punch you in your stupid faces anymore…but I do promise to try to try not to want to punch you in your stupid faces anymore. Sorry, it's the best I can do, believe me. Now…GET THE HELL OFF MY LAWN!!!

BIRDMAN or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance): A Review

"The two hardest things in life to deal with are failure and success" - author unknown

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WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!! CONSIDER THIS YOUR OFFICIAL SPOILER ALERT!!

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is the story of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a former star of the fictitious superhero "Birdman" franchise films, who is on the downside of his career and tries to reignite it by adapting, directing and starring in a stage version of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The film follows the trials and tribulations of the staging of the play, of Riggan's life and his descent (or further descent) into madness.

Besides Michael Keaton in the lead, the film boasts a stellar cast of supporting actors including Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan and Zach Galifianakis. All of them turn in solid and sometimes spectacular performances. Norton in particular is really great as Mike Shiner, a stage actor intensely committed to his craft and work. 

Keaton is the best he has ever been in the lead role of Riggan Thomson. He effortlessly captures Riggan's desperation, emptiness and regrets, both professional and personal. Keaton emanates Riggan's frantic need to be famous, important, respected and loved (both by others and himself), and that reeking stink of desperation seeps through his every pour and envelops and follows him wherever he goes.  Keaton as Riggan is both charismatic and repulsive at the same time, no easy feat, and he carries the film with the power of his performance as a man running out of performance power.

"Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige" - Mike Shiner

The symbolism of having Keaton play the lead is undeniable. Keaton has been identified for decades by his portrayal of Batman in the first few Tim Burton Batman movies of the 80's. In many ways, Keaton's once promising career never fully recovered from being Batman. His wallet certainly never suffered from playing the Caped Crusader, but his artistic soul, instincts, reputation and career most assuredly did. Keaton, just like Riggan Thomson, had not only lost his artistic soul, but he had also lost the thing most precious in the entertainment industry…cultural relevance. Riggan's staging of a 'comeback' play is on one level, an attempt to save his artistic soul by returning to the birthplace of acting…the theatre, and doing a work by Carver, a writer who once encouraged a young Riggan to really pursue being an actor. But as the ice cold theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (brilliantly played by Lindsay Duncan) tells Riggan, "You aren't a real actor, you're a celebrity". Ouch…the truth hurts, as they say, because on another level Riggan proves Tabitha right, by using his return to the theatre as just a way for him to get some temporary artistic credibility (Mike Shiner's aforementioned 'prestige') in order to return to cultural relevance, and thus fame ('popularity'). Of course, the same could be said of Keaton, who in returning to a smaller, independent, art-house type film, is trying to re-ignite not only his long lost acting credibility (prestige), but also his fame and cultural relevance (popularity). Keaton has gotten nominated for a Golden Globe and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if he gets an Oscar nomination, which brings with it prestige. So this film may work for him on both the prestige and popularity counts. Time will only tell how things play out, I certainly hope he doesn't fling himself out of a high-rise window.

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What is fascinating about Birdman is that it plays with the multiple ways in which reality is perceived from an artists (or at least an actor's) point of view, and lets all of those various realities mix together to help the viewer try and understand why Riggan is so out of and off balance. His world and his perception of the world never settles down enough for him to stand firmly upon it and claim one reality as his own, so he stumbles from one perception of reality to the next, never fully understanding any one that he inhabits.

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Riggan has a sign up on his dressing room mirror which reads, "A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing". This is a bit of wisdom that Riggan is never fully able to integrate into his psyche. Riggan, like most famous people, or formerly famous people, is stuck between being an actual human being and being a human creation. Is he defined by what people are saying about him on Facebook, or how many twitter followers he has? Is he defined by what the critics say of him? Or of what studio heads think of him? Or of what films roles he is offered, or how many awards he has won, or how much money he makes? Or is he defined by his past success as Birdman, or has his past success as Birdman actually become a failure and does that define him? All confusing stuff but it can be boiled down to this…there are two questions that famous people, whether they be actors, reality stars, cable news talking heads, politicians or general wannabes wrestle with on an everyday basis…1. what do people think of me? and 2. what do the really important people think of me?….and not always in that exact order.

The artist is not spared in the distorted perception of reality discussion either. Edward Norton's Mike Shiner is a successful broadway actor, the quintessential stage actor. He is so lost in his art that he is unable to actually be a real, live person anywhere except on stage in front of an audience. He is so committed to his art in fact, that the only time he has been able to get an erection in the last six months is on stage in front of a live audience during a performance of Riggan's 'comeback play'. He is self aware enough to know that he is a disaster area of a human being, but is so cocksure as an actor that he is willing to overlook the 95% of his life off-stage in order to 'shine' for that 5% of the time he is on stage. The artist, along with the fame hungry star, can lose their balance in the search for their validation of choice. As Mike Shiner puts it, "popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige". Shiner is the artistic shadow of Riggan, and in turn, Riggan is the shadow of Shiner, both distorted by their quest, one for popularity, one for prestige. Flip sides of the same coin.

"I do not like the man who squanders life for fame; give me the man who living makes a name" - Emily Dickinson

The lesson to take from Birdman, (and a life in the acting business) is that fame is a disease. The pursuit of it is an act of the insane. With fame comes a deep moral and ethical decay and rot. The world of the famous is filled with corruption, depravity, self-loathing and paranoia. When a person attains fame, they cease to be a human being, and morph into a soul-less product. Just like any large corporation, be it Exxon, Time-Warner or Goldman Sachs, the famous may have legal 'personhood' but they are not actual human beings.  This is the sickness of fame. It strips those who have it of their human being-ness, and that is why it strips those of us looking upon them of our humaneness. We project all of our hopes and fears upon them, often all at the same time. When a person is so inundated with all of these projections, they can't help but be overwhelmed by them as if by being struck by a tsunami. Their true selves get obliterated, and the person they were, for good or for ill, vanishes, and is replaced with a new self, that is false and manufactured. The only antidote to the disease and addiction of fame is to actively work against it and to cultivate a grounded life and a sense of true self. Fame as an off-shoot of being genuinely talented, is difficult enough, even when it is vigorously shunned, but fame that is a result of  sheer ambition and force of will that is pursued to fill a desperate psychological need or satiate a malignant narcissism, is an act of madness that will most assuredly result in self immolation. Birdman lays that hard truth bare for all to see, and it is a lesson that America would be wise to learn in this age of the reality television star and the celebration of the minimally talented.

"Whatever begins, also ends" - Seneca

As much as I enjoyed Birdman, and I genuinely did, there is one major flaw, and in some ways it undermines the entirety of the film. The ending is terribly bungled, so much so that it leaves me scratching my head because they actually had the chance to end it perfectly twice and let those endings pass and instead settled for a muddled and bewildering ending that scuttles the interest and brilliance that leads up to it. The film ends with Riggan jumping out a hospital window, and his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) entering the empty hospital room and not finding her father and seeing the window open she goes to it and looks out. First she looks down, as if to find his body splattered on the sidewalk, when she doesn't, she then looks up…and sees something and smiles. We don't see what she sees, but I would assume that Riggan has become The Birdman, or a legend and now resides among the stars or something along those lines. He has become immortal at last. That ending is fine in and of itself, but it doesn't work because in the context of the film, there were not one but two different endings leading up to it, thus altering and undermining the final beat of the movie. The first aborted ending is when Riggan is on stage with a real gun and not the prop gun of the play, and holds it to his head and pulls the trigger in front of a packed house on stage. The screen goes black. The film could have ended there and people would have left talking about it. How people will literally (and figuratively) kill themselves for fame and stardom. This is a major theme running through the American psyche at the moment and numerous films are exploring the subject, from Whiplash to Foxcatcher to Birdman. The 'shooting yourself on stage' ending leaves us talking about those type of issues and our celebrity and fame infected and obsessed culture as we leave the movie theatre and for days and weeks after. 

The second ending comes right after the first, we come back from a black screen following the shooting to find Riggan in the hospital, he survived, but he shot his nose off. He has literally (and figuratively) cut, or in this case shot, his nose off to spite his face. On the other hand, he is on the cover of all the newspapers and the hot topic on television, everyone is talking about him, and even giving him great reviews. He is back to relevance, both artistic and fame-wise, prestige and popularity. He sits in bed thinking about it all, the madness of it, the hell that was fame when he once knew it, the road that lies ahead of being back in-the-mix of the decadent, vicious, vapid and vacant world of hollywood and pop culture. Keaton is brilliant in this scene, he captures Riggan's conflicted feelings and fear perfectly. It would have been an absolutely fantastic way to end the film, with just a close up of Keaton as he hears that he IS BACK ON TOP, and seeing what that really means to someone who has lived through it before and knows he won't live through it again this time, and how empty and toxic the prize he has just won really is. Cut to black…prepare Oscar speech. But again, they didn't do that, they instead have a few more minutes of the film which just aren't necessary and which undercut the brilliance that preceded it and disrupt and alter the rhythm of the film. I have been trying to figure out why the decision to end the film where they did was made, it is baffling. It isn't a more 'hollywood' ending, in fact it is still an 'art house' ending, just a more muddled and less coherent one. And of the three artistic endings it could have used, it is without question the weakest. 

As a result of the unskillful ending of the film, I had the experience of finding the film to be…well...forgettable. That is not to say that I didn't enjoy the experience of watching it in the theatre, and it is also not to say that it isn't a good film, it is to say that by faltering at the end the film does not end up staying with you for very long. You don't walk out of the theatre and talk about it for hours. You don't think about it and mull it over for the following days and weeks. The film had the chance to be a sumptuous feast if it had gotten its ending right, but instead it lurches from one false ending to the next, which ultimately, like chinese food, leaves you hungry twenty minutes later.

In conclusion, Birdman is a very good film that I really enjoyed watching, with solid and sometimes spectacular performances by the entire cast, but it misses out on being a great film by not getting the oh-so-critical ending right, and that is a terrible shame. As I said, I did enjoy the film, but I do wonder if 'normal' people, in other words, 'non-actors' or 'non-entertainment industry' people will enjoy it quite as much as I did. But with all that said I recommend you go see it, if for no other reason than to get a glimpse into the madness of the life of being an actor, or even worse...a successful actor.

© 2014

FOR REVIEWS OF OTHER FILMS RELEASED DURING THE HOLIDAY SEASON, PLEASE CLICK ON THESE LINKS TO THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING , WHIPLASH , FOXCATCHER , WILD , AMERICAN SNIPER , THE IMITATION GAME , A MOST VIOLENT YEAR , NIGHTCRAWLER , STILL ALICE , INHERENT VICE , SELMA , MR. TURNER , CAKE .