Birdman (***1/2): Who is this guy?

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Birdman – 2014

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Lindsay Duncan
Screenplay Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., Armando Bo

It’s during the second balcony scene with Mike and Sam (Norton and Stone) that one begins to realize how riveting Birdman has become. It’s not that the script is all that wonderful, being rife with scene after scene of “Where am I in life?” talk. You know, the kind of philosophizing one does with near strangers at a party fueled by mood altering substances. No one really wants to get to know the other person. Instead, they really just want to know that they have enough to get themselves through the night. And maybe get lucky.

What is completely wonderful about the film is that it is actually shot as if it were one continuous long shot. This is not really the case, of course. This effect is so well executed, however, that the effort itself becomes more interesting than the events of the story.

The story: Riggan Thompson (Keaton), an actor best known for his movie portrayal of a fictional superhero named Birdman, is attempting to crawl out of his mid-life crisis. He hasn’t done much in 20 years, other than get married, produce a child headed for rehab, get divorced and take a shot at redemption. That shot is trying to produce a play based on the William Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Somewhere along the way, he becomes convinced that his superhero alter-ego has become one with he the person.

This counterpart runs a constant narrative in his mind, calling him out and prodding him along, (seemingly)granting him powers, and then giving him an insane type of hope. Or it could just be a result of alcoholism.

Michael Keaton is commendable as Thompson / Birdman. The material is right in his half-sane / half-comic genius wheelhouse. To say this is some sort of corollary to Keaton’s own career seems a little too easy. There is some nuance for the actor, I am sure, but the idea really only distracts from the purpose of his character in the film.

Norton’s Mike is an interesting character, in his complete and utter disregard for the bullshit that broadway appears to be. He is completely unhinged at times, completely lucid at others. It’s hard to tell if he has common sense or if he is full of shit.

The film is pretty cynical about the world of theater criticism. Whether this is just or not, I cannot say. Lindsay Duncan’s Tabitha Dickenson seems to be pining for the lost art of the practice the same way that proponents of any unknown and seemingly sophisticated art try to hold it over the heads of the un-initiated. It’s a player with yourselves club, just like Phil Hartman said. Jazz aficionados beware.

Outside of the critic, the women characters all seem to be of the type who wait around for the men to come to conclusions or tell them something about themselves. Emma’s Sam is caught trying to decide if her dad is a horrible parent or if she is something “special.” That she’s told this by her father who’s looking for forgiveness on one hand and a guy (Mike) who is attracted to her on the other should raise a red flag. The net effect seems lost in the end, when what makes her really special seems to be her ability to understand why dad is amazing.

Amy Ryan as Sylvia seems a pretty well-balanced person as one who was rational enough to jump from the failing marriage and right her own ship. She lingers around like a satellite, reflecting images of the journey back to home base when needed. Any amount of Amy Ryan is easy to appreciate.

As a female counterpoint, we have Riseborough’s Laura, who starts out as a girlfriend who is pregnant with Riggan’s child. Immediately, she realizes that her role is not as mother to be, but as current afterthought. The effect is meant as an exclamation of Riggan’s character development, but it comes across as a total disregard for the lives of others.

Really, though, it seems like Iñárritu is more concerned with the form and not the content of the movie. There are several remarkable scenes that take the viewer on a completely thrilling ride through the entire world that they inhabit. There is no question this film is a visual masterpiece. As for the people who live in that world, not so much. The result is a story that leaves us feeling amazed, but somehow vacant of real emotion.

(***1/2 out of *****)

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