Review: BIRDMAN

BIRDMAN (or THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) soars behind Michael Keaton and director Alejando González Iñárritu, who has made the best film of his career.

How did we end up here? This place is horrible.

-Birdman

Birdman makes the argument that being in a superhero franchise is its own type of weird gravity, a force so powerful that it bends the arc of an actor’s career. A cape or cowl can be the ticket to fortune and fame, but can it also be a prison once the ride is over? Everyone knows that Christopher Reeve played Superman, but do they also know he studied at Juilliard and starred on Broadway with Audrey Hepburn? Unlikely.

That’s the world Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) lives in. A middle-aged, washed-up actor who walked away from the popular Birdman franchise two decades ago, Thomson has spent the last 20 years playing smaller and smaller roles and becoming an afterthought. If he’s approached on the street, it’s by fans who’ve grown to middle-age with him, and who want to talk about Birdman. Down on his luck, Riggan funnels the last of his money, his fame, and his friends into an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” in hopes of being respected again.

When a stage light falls on an underperforming actor during rehearsals, Riggan sees his last chance slipping away until critical darling Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) is found to replace him. Shiner’s prestige reputation and box office draw are just the tools Riggan needs to bring his vision to fruition. Unfortunately, Mike Shiner is also crazy difficult to work with, and possibly just plain crazy. His presence strains the already tenuous relationship between a cast and crew comprised of producer Jake (Zach Galifanakis), unconfident actress/Mike’s girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watt), actress/Riggan’s girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough), and assistant/Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone). If they can put everything together perfectly, the production just might thrive, but failure seems to hide behind every accident, tantrum, and disastrous preview performance. Riggan might be doomed to be remembered as a failed superhero actor forever, a fact that his subconscious – in the disembodied voice of the Birdman character – is constantly there to remind him of.

Birdman is directed by Alejando González Iñárritu, and it represents an enormous leap forward for the director. Iñárritu’s previous films have been technically impressive, but stunningly frigid. The soulless crush of globalism is one of his favorite themes (and who doesn’t want to party to that?). I often call his Golden Globe-winning film Babel the coldest film I’ve ever seen. His oeuvre isn’t comprised of films you’re dying to watch again and again. But that’s not true of Birdman, which is a wildly inventive black comedy. This type of black comedy is usually the knowing, thoughtful type of funny, but Birdman is gut-bustingly, laugh-out-loud hilarious – not that it isn’t smart as well.

I wonder if Iñárritu took pointers from his good friend Alfonso Cuáron, the Best Director winner for last year’s Gravity, because both films are staggering technical achievements. That’s to be expected of a science fiction astronaut thriller with a heap of special effects wizardry, but Birdman pulls off an equally impressive, if far more subtle, feat. Shot ostensibly as one long take, the camera follows its actors through tight corridors, across stages, up into the rafters and onto rooftops, and down the street. There’s never a static moment. It’s no small thing that both films share cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.

Even when the play’s four actors are performing  on the tight confines of the stage, the camera swirls around them, presenting the performances as theatre-in-the-round for the viewer, showing the actors, a confused crowd, and a stressed-out Jake in the stage’s wings. Even with all the movement, the film is never frenzied – it glides effortlessly. You can see the seams where scenes were stitched together if you know where to look (the blackouts when a character walls through a dark corridor, the long shots down empty hallways), but it’s amazing how often you forget to even care. The knowledge that the camera and crew had to be digitally removed from shots where two actresses converse directly in front of a mirror is merely an afterthought. There’s too much else to focus on. How Iñárritu managed to make the film’s comedic moments hit so well in the midst of so many highly technical, extended takes is a testament to his skill. It’s mind-blowing.

I wonder if anyone in America will walk into Birdman with a completely blank slate. It seems impossible. That the film stars Michael Keaton, himself a former superhero actor who has seen his star potential decline ever since he walked away from the Batman franchise in the early nineties, isn’t lost on anyone. Keaton hadn’t headlined a film since 2009 until Birdman was written with him in mind. Reviewers have asked if Keaton’s outstanding performance here can reignite his career the same way that Riggan hopes his play can restore his reputation. Edward Norton, playing the brilliant but difficult to manage Mike Snider, has himself been called difficult to work with in the past. But Iñárritu knows the meta-textual nature of his film. It could be a clever wink of the eye to the audience and nothing more, but Iñárritu anticipates that his audience will be in on the joke, and he continues to play with the audience’s expectations. That may sound pretentious, but it plays incredibly smart. In one scene, Mike Snider reads Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrthins while in a tanning bed. Wink wink. The film features layers upon layers, all of them enjoyable.

Norton is hilarious, and you have to wonder why he hasn’t had more comedic work (Death to Smoochy may be the answer). His effortlessly “real” acting when on stage mixed with his complete inability to connect with people in the real world is a source for endless laughs, and a clever rumination on method acting — one worries that he might steal the movie away from Keaton, but there’s no need for the concern. Norton is great, but the few times Birdman lags are when Norton has to carry a scene on his own. Make no mistake. The film is all Keaton’s, and he is great in it.

I cringe saying that an actor is “fearless,” but Keaton took a huge chance playing Riggan Thomson. He takes a film that easily could have been a joke at his own expense and refuses to ever let that happen. Even when Riggan is comparing his body to a turkey with leukemia, running through Times Square in his underwear, or hallucinating about his Birdman superpowers, Keaton remains in control. As with Christopher Reeve’s stint at Juilliard, the fact that Keaton was once a well respected actor who could speak volumes with just the look on his face or a gesture is largely forgotten. Tim Burton cast him as Batman because he believed that Keaton was the only actor alive who could convincingly portray Batman and Bruce Wayne as two wildly disparate sides of the same coin. Birdman is a chance for us all to remember, and when he’s on screen you can’t take your eyes off of him. An Oscar nomination wouldn’t be out of the question.

Birdman is the type of film that’s SO clever, SO smart, SO well done in all areas, that it’s almost hard to talk about. There are too many subplots and great performances to do them all justice. There’s Riggan’s fight to win over a critic determined to pan his play so badly that it will shut down production. Riggan has a strained relationship with his daughter who views social media presence, not critical acclaim, as the source of real power. There are questions about the nature of obscure authenticity vs. sell-out popularity. Riggan’s Birdman alter-ego views the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and Jeremy Renner as unworthy pretenders to the throne that Riggan once held. Even the mere presence of Riggan’s disembodied Birdman subconscious and use of metaphysical powers when no one is around makes you wonder if Riggan’s years as Birdman warped not just his career, but his mind. If you spend much of the film pondering the film’s subtitle, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, know that a revelation is coming, and, when it does, BANG. Layers upon layers upon layers.

A wild, hilarious ride featuring a perfect cast and a daring director, Birdman is an early clubhouse leader for the title of the Best Film of 2014.

Grade: A

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