THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Birdman is an odd duck. (No pun intended – there simply wasn't another viable description.) I like odd ducks. Hollywood cranks out too many generic ducks. The odd ones, even when flawed, are almost always worth paying attention to. And this one is both. It is the latest film from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose previous movies, including Babel and 21 Grams, were all, frankly, depressing. This one is a comedy, although Inarritu attacks his subject matter with the intensity of a tragedy. Maybe he secretly sees it as one. Since it's diatribe against all of Hollywood's generic ducks, that would certainly make sense.
Michael Keaton plays our hero, Riggan Thomson. He's an actor who once famously played a superhero in a series of blockbuster movies, then saw his career go downhill. (Perfect casting, right?) We meet Riggan at the point where he's attempting to prove himself a serious actor by mounting a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver story. The production is his effort to win respect, to show that he is more than just a big-screen costumed crimefighter. But there are problems. One of his co-stars, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), is an extreme Method actor whose uber-intense technique threatens to steal the spotlight. Riggan also has to deal with a recovering drug addict daughter/assistant (Emma Stone), a nervous producer (Zach Galifianakis), a first-time-on-Broadway co-star (Naomi Watts), and a co-star/girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough). And then there's Birdman. His most famous creation talks to Riggan in his head, seemingly imbuing him with telekinetic powers. Birdman, more than anyone, fuels his desire to be taken seriously, while also threatening the viability of the play even more than Shiner.
Birdman is, more or less, a direct attack on the current state of movies. Riggan has become stereotyped after appearing in superhero blockbusters. Audiences don't seem to want to see him as anything else. This creates a sense of career rage - represented by Birdman's aggressive voiceovers - that makes the success of the play increasingly important. Riggan also gets grief from a noted theater critic (played by Lindsay Duncan), who resents the efforts of this Hollywood star to enter the Great White Way. With Birdman, Inarritu seems to be saying that big-budget action movies are making audiences resistant to “real art,” and that critics are discouraging ambition among creative types by holding them to unfair standards. (As a critic, I can't agree with that last idea, but it's a welcome provocation nonetheless.) The boldness of the message, combined with the fiery intensity with which it is delivered, makes Birdman an undeniably thoughtful treatise on how art and commerce collide in current pop culture.
Michael Keaton is really phenomenal in this tour de force role. He knows a thing or two about how playing a superhero can impact an actor's career. Keaton beautifully milks every ounce of desperation from Riggan, so that we feel in our bones how vital this performance is to him. One of the best, and funniest, scenes finds him locked out of the theater on opening night and forced to take extreme measures to get back in. Keaton nails the vulnerability inherent in the predicament. He is aided by a first-rate cast, with each member adding a necessary dash of color to Riggan's virtually black existence.
The big problem with Birdman isn't its frequently bizarre flights of fancy, which are quite amusing, or its semi-ambiguous ending, which is a propos. No, the problem is the technique Inarritu uses to tell the story. Birdman has been filmed to look as though the whole movie was shot in one continuous take. That works well for some walking-and-talking scenes and for the aforementioned fantasy sequences. However, more typically, it serves to distance the audience emotionally from what's happening onscreen. At times, the approach feels so blatantly artificial that you get pulled out of the story and start to notice what the camera is doing. For this reason, despite generally liking Birdman, I never fully got into it. A more selective use of that idea would have been far better than allowing it to be pervasive.
There's still more than enough to enjoy here, and Birdman definitely picks up speed in its third act, when it starts to bring the message home. Inarritu plays the comedy very heavily, though, using that “continuous shot” technique to bludgeon the audience a little bit. It's bold and admirably ambitious, and I don't want to be the equivalent of the theater critic telling Riggan he has no business working outside the box. But, for me at least, it kept Birdman from being the masterpiece it had the potential to be.
( out of four)
Birdman is rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence. The running time is 1 hour and 59 minutes.
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