Sunday, October 26, 2014

Movie Review: "Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)"

While watching Alejandro González Iñárritu's loopy Birdman, the question inevitably came to my mind: which came first, the character, or Michael Keaton? (I ask having done no research on the film, because that would be too easy.) Because whether or not the film was intended to be loosely based on Keaton's career, this certainly was a role he was able to fully inhabit given how closely it mirrors his own life and career.

Riggan Thompson (Keaton) used to be a movie star, the actor who played the iconic superhero Birdman in a famed trilogy of films. But while box office success was his, he was a bit of a critical laughingstock, so he walked away from the character rather than continue the series. He's desperate to be taken seriously as an actor in this phase of his life, so he's sunk everything he has into writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver's iconic What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The movie takes place in the few days of previews before the show has its opening night.

The thing is, Riggan is a little bit of a mess. His daughter (Emma Stone) is fresh out of rehab and serving as his assistant, as well as a reminder of his failures as a father. His ex (Amy Ryan) isn't sure whether to hate or pity him. His girlfriend/costar (Oblivion's Andrea Riseborough) may or may not be pregnant with his baby. Oh, and Riggan is being taunted by the voice of Birdman, who is encouraging him to give up the stage charade and agree to a fourth film.

Beyond Riggan's own offstage drama, the show has its share of challenges as well, which have his best friend/producer (Zach Galifianakis, in an almost completely non-Galifianakis-like performance) on edge. An actor is replaced at the last minute by Broadway wunderkind Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who is at turns both supremely egotistical and utterly insecure, and isn't really comfortable with the publicity about the show being all about Riggan.

The demands of the show and his life suddenly become too much for Riggan to bear, and the voice in his head is growing ever more demanding. This is where Birdman shifts into fantasy, as the film takes a bit of a trippy ride deep into the recesses of Riggan's psyche. It's a little distracting but also gorgeously filmed. And then, as the film rights itself (slightly), it takes on a slightly farcical tone, and you wonder if Riggan is just a bit shrewder than we've been led to believe.

Sporting a wispy, hangdog goatee and a lousy toupee, Keaton looks haggard but is absolutely brilliant in this role. Riggan wishes he could have been taken seriously as an actor while achieving the success he did as Birdman, but realizes he couldn't have both, which is why this comeback is more important to him than anything else. And while he desperately wants to set his relationships right, he feels utterly powerless to do so. He is both vulnerable and brave, cocksure and scared, and this is a performance I expect we'll see recognized as Oscar season approaches.

Keaton's co-stars turn in some strong performances as well. Norton talks a mile a minute about craft and words, and is often most comfortable when he's making other people uncomfortable, but there's an air of vulnerability to him as well. I am a huge Emma Stone fan, and while I don't think she had a huge part in the film, she imbued her character with the shaky confidence you'd expect someone to have just out of rehab. Naomi Watts (as Keaton's leading lady and Norton's sometime girlfriend) and Riseborough each have some good moments.

Birdman is definitely a talky film, but despite its meditation on the short-term nature of fame and the power of the media, it's a little more lighthearted than I expected. The dreamy pieces may render this film not quite for everyone, but it's definitely worth seeing for the performances and the dialogue alone. I hope this represents a return to the film world for Michael Keaton; he's definitely been missed.

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