This year has turned out to be one of take-me-seriously films, stories of all sorts of artists — actors, writers, painters, musicians, and chefs — making a grab for recognition and authenticity. Of course, artistic angst isn't a new topic, but in 2014, it erupted from multiple founts.
New York Times critic A.O. Scott has bemoaned the scarcity of art that reflects our turbulent economic moment, and certainly current cinema seems more interested in self-reflection than gazing out. But, in their own way, Top Five, Birdman, Chef, Big Eyes, and even the Interview do reflect market pressures, and particularly a concern that the gap between what's popular and what's important (or at least attempts to be) is growing.
It's true that with the mid-budget movie disappearing, the ones that are being made tend to cluster around the opposite ends of the spectrum — either effects-driven tentpoles and big comedies intended to appeal to the widest possible audience, or much smaller films that will, if successful, attract a niche crowd. In many ways, this year's crop of take-me-seriously movies are grappling with the related idea that being a star and being an artist are two separate things.
Andre Allen, the vaguely Chris Rock-like character who Chris Rock plays in Top Five, is a talented stand-up who's become a major star courtesy of a string of drecky comedies in which he wears a costume and solves crimes as Hammy the Bear (catchphrase: "It's Hammy time!"). They're as terrible as they are popular, and understandably, they've become something from which he wants to distance himself.
Top Five takes place on the opening day of Andre's new film, a grim biopic about the leader of a Haitian slave rebellion called Uprize that's supposed to mark the start of his new career as a dramatic actor. "This is the kind of stuff I'm trying to get into now — more serious stuff," he says, but all anyone asks about is when he'll make another Hammy feature, and when he stops to peek into a theater, he sees that audiences are staying away from Uprize in droves. As empty as the cinemas are for Andre's new movie, he's had plenty of company on screen in his quest to be seen as a significant talent, one who's not just churning out commercial hits but whose work is meaningful and worthy of praise.
For Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), the agitated hero of Birdman, the stage is his targeted crucible for reinvention. The former star of a superhero blockbuster franchise pours everything he has into financing a Broadway play, an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story, which Riggan wrote, directed, and is starring in himself — a project carefully calibrated to show artistic heft.
Both Andre and Riggan got famous and wealthy off commercial projects by which they're professionally haunted, and now that they've done something they hope is meaningful, no one's all that interested in showing up to see it — they just want to know when the next installment of their respective franchises is coming out. Their bids for something more weighty are being treated as vanity projects, shrugged at by journalists and pre-emptively scoffed at in reviews. (Top Five allows that Andre's "serious" movie is dreadful, while Birdman leaves an open question as to whether or not Riggan's play is any good.)
Chef is about writer/director/star Jon Favreau's filmmaking career just as much as it is about food. Carl Casper, the chef played by Favreau, wants to put more demanding, risky dishes on his menu, but the owner of his restaurant, Riva (Dustin Hoffman), insists he stick with the stodgy favorites that everyone likes to order. The film pins Carl's stagnation — and the eventual meltdown he has over the uninspired fine dining fare he's been churning out (video of which ends up on TMZ) — on the restaurant biz. He reinvigorates his career by returning to his Miami roots and starting a Cubano food truck, and if the borrowed immigrant cuisine is a little too easily a shortcut to real cooking, the back-to-the-basics routine works out. It's no coincidence the film is Favreau's first indie as a director in over a decade, after multiple stints directing big studio features.
Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), the Svengali who fulfills his dreams of being an artist by taking credit for his wife's paintings in Big Eyes, also throws a public tantrum, but over a dismissive review of work he didn't even do. It's impressive, even in a year with several dramatized clashes between creators and critics. Not even the harebrained duo in The Interview are safe from the pull of prestige — it's the jibes of a less frivolously engaged journalist classmate that jolt producer Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen) into chasing an interview for host Dave Skylark (James Franco) with Kim Jong Un.
That these movies are so male is not unexpected, if still disappointing — they are, after all, directed by men, with differing degrees of self-portraiture. They're portrayals of ego, insecurity, and competition that suggest that a ravenous appetite for recognition may not be uniquely masculine, but is most comfortable shown as such. When a female character is given the focus, as in Big Eyes, she's manipulated into ceding the spotlight to her outsized husband, who eagerly preens and prattles on about process without knowing or caring what he's talking about.
The notable exception is The Congress, Ari Folman's ambitious and flawed sci-fi film starring Robin Wright as herself, sort of, in a dark twist on the take-me-seriously theme. This fictional version of Robin longs for roles of consequence (she, ironically, refuses to do sci-fi). But she also fears them, having made a splashy debut only to earn a reputation for herself as flaky by dropping out of projects at the last minute. Her career slowing, she's offered a chance to sell the rights to her image to a studio, who'll scan her and then use her as a digital performer, while she'll forfeit all rights to continue acting in real life.
While Andre reaches for authenticity in Oscar bait, Riggan in theater, and Carl in a food truck, Robin is left with nothing to grasp onto except the possibility of invisibility. She's not an author of her own work, so her image is all she has to leverage, and she's aging out of the traditional movies the studio head says are going away anyway. To continue being seen, she has to surrender control, her body and face becoming material for animators to manipulate. If Birdman and Top Five and Chef are about the search for their celebrity characters' artistic beginnings, The Congress is a fable of the idea of stardom run amuck. It presents a future where someone's image can be commodified and splashed on a giant screen while the real person passes by, ignored, unseen.