There aren’t many films that are genuinely laugh out loud funny, but I have to say that Birdman, starring Michael Keaton, is one of them, although the humour is pretty dark at times. The film tells the story of washed up Hollywood “superhero”, Riggan Thomson’s attempt to relaunch his career as a serious stage actor by putting on a play based on Raymond Carver’s short story, What We Talk About, When We Talk About Love.
Not surprisingly, one disaster strikes after another. On the night before the previews open, one cast member, admittedly one Riggan is desperate to get rid of, is injured by a falling light. As a replacement, Riggan’s manager and the show’s producer, hires renowned Broadway method actor, Mike Shiner. Shiner is played hilariously by Edward Norton as monstrously conceited thesp, so dependent on an audience for self-validation that he can only get it up in front of a packed theatre. Needless to say, Shiner loses no time in trying to upstage Riggan at every opportunity. Add to the mix Riggan’s neurotic, much younger girlfriend, his ex-wife, his recovering addict daughter and a diabolically bitchy theatre critic with the power to make or break any theatre production staged in New York and you have the perfect recipe for black comedy.
Yet despite all that, there’s a warm undercurrent to the film. Throughout Riggan’s trials, his cinematic alter ego, the eponymous Birdman, berates and upbraids him. But although Riggan seems to have retained a number of Birdman’s supernatural powers including the ability to levitate, move objects using his mind alone and fly unaided above the streets of New York, his chief preoccupations remain deeply parochial.
The film explores the idea that as successful we might appear to be, we remain beset with the same commonplace anxieties – are we loved, what’s our place in the world, have we been successful? Riggan might have had a stellar career in Hollywood, but he remains deeply insecure. Years of impersonating Birdman to do nothing to save him from himself.
By contrast, Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, is anything but a comedy. Young drummer, Andrew Neiman – played by Miles Teller – is a student at an elite music school. Andrew is determined to take his place among the jazz greats alongside Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker, but at what cost? Neiman finds himself up against Terrence Fletcher, the sadistic leader of the school’s jazz band, who refuses to countenance anything other than total perfection.
In order to weed out the men from the boys, Fletcher, played by JK Simmons, resorts to cruel mind-games, excoriating verbal abuse and physical violence. The result is a desperate duel, in which Fletcher pushes Andrew through blood, sweat and tears to the edge of insanity and beyond. However Andrew is not a quitter and through the conflict, he gradually gains the mastery that will enable him to match and surpass his tormentor and earn his grudging respect.
The film explores a number of interesting ideas around what it is that enables an artist to stand apart from the crowd and become extraordinary and whether those that take that path pay too high a price for their success. While there are abiding popular myths about those born to be geniuses, the reality is that greatness is almost invariably very hard won indeed.