Saturday, November 29, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu's tale of a washed-up celebrity's last chance to reclaim his career is a bizarre look at the life of a man who may, or may not, have super-human abilities who has bet his entire career on a Broadway production that is in continual struggle as opening night looms.

Making good use of Michael Keaton's role of Batman back in the early 1990s, Iñárritu casts the actor as Riggan Thomson best known for his role as a super-hero film series star who no one inside the industry takes seriously. Riggan is haunted by his former alter-ego Birdman who continues whispering to him in a gruff Batman tone voicing displeasure about the current state of the star's life. In a script that ebbs and flows (and often gives us too many first-person walking shots down halls where nothing happens), Keaton keeps Birdman on track delivering his best performance since donning his own tights.

The rest of the cast and crew of the production fall into unremarkable (workmen, staff, etc.) or hopelessly neurotic (Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough) and egomaniacs (Edward Norton).

The cast is rounded off by a refreshingly understated Zach Galifianakis as Riggan's best friend and agent and Lindsay Duncan as a Broadway critic who despises Riggan and everything his brand of Hollywood celebrity stands for. Much like Stone, Watts, and Norton (or honestly any character of the film other than Riggan) her role is completely one-dimensional but works under the motivations and situations provided in the script.

Despite it's odd nature and unique feel, several of the film's big moments are tipped fairly early including the climactic scene on which everything relies. The movie doesn't have much positive to say about celebrities and actors as people, romantic partners, or parents, or those who judge them silently (and are presented as equally egomaniacal). If the film didn't have a sense of humor it would be incredibly bleak to watch. Thankfully Iñárritu provides an undercurrent of dark humor to keep the film from getting too bogged down in Riggan's disintegrating world.

Many of the film's sequences are cut together in such a way to provide the look of long takes. At times this works well giving the film a different look and style, but in other sequences it just appears odd and pretentious as the technique isn't always used to service the story. Iñárritu also makes good use of the Broadway theater, its stage, and the maze of hallways and dressing rooms behind the scenes where much of the action takes place. As we really only witness a couple of the play's sequences, the same few each time, it's hard to judge Riggan's work as both a stage actor or writer in his adaption of a piece of work which we learn is deeply personal to him.

In the end Birdman succeeds despite several nagging issues mainly on the performance of its star and the style of its director. It's certainly one of the more memorable films in recent memory and does a good job exploring the disconnect between a man's celebrity (there are multiple scenes of Riggan being stopped by fans) and his position within the industry which once made him a star. Do the romantic subplots fizzle rather than spark? Is the ending too easy to see coming? Definitely, but even if Birdman botches the landing a bit it soars high for most of its two-hour running time.

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