Lord help us. Alejandro González Iñárritu has made a comedy. The king of the mopers, director of 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful is in a light-hearted mood these days. Well, sort of. It is a very dark comedy. But I can sense that he’s rallying and eventually he’ll direct a Disney animated feature with princesses and bluebirds and…
Just kidding.
Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton, is an actor who years ago turned down an offer to play the superhero, Birdman for the fourth time. It was an iconic role for him and one that made him a lot of money. Unfortunately, he was typecast in the role and has not worked since. To revive his career he decides to write, produce, direct and star in a Broadway play version of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” As opening night looms the problems begin to mount, as does the pressure on Riggan. He has hallucinations of his old character appearing and mocking him for turning away from stardom. His daughter, Sam, played by Emma Stone, is working as his personal assistant. She is a recovering addict and her acerbic and rebellious presence serves as a reminder to him of what a terrible father he was. He also has a co-star, Mike Shiner, played by Edward Norton, who is talented, but demanding and difficult to work with. Riggan has put his entire fortune into the production and will be ruined if it fails as it seems destined to do.
Plotwise, the script by Inarritu is a loose affair with a lot of sub-plots that don’t really amount to much. But there is some barbed dialog aimed at Hollywood, Broadway, actors and the artistic process in general. All the characters are narcissistic and neurotic and yet somehow likable. In Riggan’s case it is because he is very much aware of his faults and is trying to atone for them. Birdman is a story about trying to gain redemption.
It is an eccentric role and it’s hard to imagine anyone but Michael Keaton pulling it off. There are some who say he must be drawing on his own experiences from playing Batman in the Tim Burton films. But while that was the height of his popularity, he seems to have worked pretty steadily since then. I don’t immediately think of Batman when I think of Michael Keaton. In any case, he does a wonderful understated job of showing a man who under a lot of stress, with a tenuous relationship with reality anyway, and heading for a nervous breakdown.
All the performances are magnificent, especially since the film had to be so difficult to act in. It’s done in a series of long moving shots that often follow the actors down hallways and through doors. There are almost no cuts or fades or anything like that. Technically this is very difficult for actors, who sometimes had to do as much as fifteen pages of script in a single shot, all while hitting numerous marks with no close-ups or cutaways so the editor could use the best parts of various takes. In addition they are portraying stage actors so they have to go from that over-the-top, play to the back of the house stage style of acting to a more intimate realistic film style in a matter of seconds. That may have been the most difficult thing of all. The result is a masterfully executed tone that is both theatrical and cinematic.
I have always thought that Inarritu was a great filmmaker, innovative, great with actors and with the more technical aspects of the process. If I have a quibble with Birdman, it is that the script is a little unfocussed with the subplots.
But unlike Inarritu’s other films, your family won’t have to hide all the sharp objects in your house after you’ve seen it.


1 Response to “Birdman”

  1. 1 Thomas Van Horne November 2, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    Thanks. I’m increasingly using you as my “most reliable critic” when considering a film that I’m uncertain about seeing — so there’s one anyway.

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