Saturday, November 22, 2014

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Risenborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Screenplay by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., Armando Bo. Produced by Alejandro González Iñárritu, John Lesher, Arnon Milchan, James W. Skotchdopole. Run Time: 119 minutes. U.S. Color, Comedy

Alejandro González Iñárritu may not be a household name, or one that is easy to spell, but his latest film, Birdman, is one of the most interesting I’ve seen in quite a while. Without giving too much about the story away, as the film is still in theaters, the most interesting concept to come along is the film, for the most part, is shot to look like it is one continuous shot. The idea is not new, as Alfred Hitchcock tried the same feat with Rope (1948); there is, after all, nothing new under the sun. But while Hitchcock was limited on how long a take could be and was thus forced to use rather clunky transitions between takes, Iñárritu’s film does not suffer from such limitations.

The film though is much more than a one-trick pony, telling the story of a Hollywood film actor, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who twenty years previous had starred as Birdman, a fictional comic book superhero, in a trilogy of films. Now past his marquee prime, Riggan wants to reinvent himself as a Broadway playwright, director and actor, by adapting a Raymond Carver short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love". His best friend/lawyer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis), is producing and Riggan’s adult, estranged and straight-from-rehab daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), is working as his personal assistant throughout the ordeal.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is an actor whose career is
overshadowed by his role in a comic-book inspired movie trilogy.

In the cast of Thomson’s play are his girlfriend, Laura (Andrea Risenborough); a theater actress, Lesley (Naomi Watts), who has never appeared on Broadway; and as a last minute fill-in, Lesley’s boyfriend, a well-known and troublesome Broadway actor, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). Add in Thomson’s ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) and Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), a theater critic for the New York Times who does not like Hollywood actors trying to legitimize themselves by trodding the boards on the Great Way.

Naomi Watts plays Lesley, a theater actress looking forward to her big break on Broadway.

The story is told with a dark sense of humor which should be expected from a filmmaker best known for directing what has been called the Death Trilogy: Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006). There is also a sense of magic with Riggan displaying capabilities that are presented as both real and imagined. You’re never sure if it’s in his head or not.

While the script was not written specifically to tell Keaton’s personal story, he would be the perfect choice for the role. Having played the Dark Knight in two films directed by Tim Burton: Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), Keaton brings a certain real world gravitas to the Thomson character that only a handful of other actors could bring and probably not do as well as Keaton does with the part. A failed stand-up turned comedic actor, Keaton has shown, when given the opportunity, that he is capable of being more than simply funny and is willing to do whatever the part requires. 

It also seems that Edward Norton was born to play Mike Shiner. Norton has a reputation for being hard to work with, which he shares with the Shiner character. Norton is not afraid to let it all hang out with his performance and maybe that’s why, despite his reputation, he continues to get work.

Edward Norton plays Mike Shiner, a hard to work with, but brilliant actor.

But of all the actors in the film, the biggest surprise, at least for me, was Zach Galifianakis, who plays a restrained, multi-dimensional character. His Jake does have some funny lines, but he’s not the comedic relief or the guy, in this film, that will do anything, no matter how base, for the laugh. While there have been hints of this in other roles, it was still nice to see some depth from the actor.

Zach Galifianakis gives a surprisingly restrained performance as Riggan's best friend/lawyer/producer.

The film is not without its problems. To begin with, there are few too many testicular references in the script for me, one would be too many, and they’re mostly used for shock value, which is lessened the more you hear it. Also, the story could be a little tighter and the Sylvia character, though Amy Ryan is good, isn’t really necessary. The climactic scene, and I won’t reveal what happens only that it’s a desperate action, seems a little unmotivated. And the film pulls away from the potential impact it could have had. The ending, while ambiguously upbeat, is still dissatisfying. And it’s not without clichés about the fragility of sexual orientation.

I liked Amy Ryan as Sylvia, Riggan's ex-wife. I just wasn't sure the character was needed.

Birdman has a certain independent film feel to it, literally drummed home by the soundtrack. While I can’t put my finger on a particular film, for some reason it reminded me of something John Cassavetes or some similar independent director might have utilized back in the day.

Still, I really liked the movie. A film that is essentially about going deep behind the scenes of not only a Broadway play, but also the actor/director/writer/producer’s psyche treats the fourth wall like it is more of a curtain than a solid structure to keep film and audience separated. This is not a technique that is right for all stories, but in a film in which time and space are free flowing concepts, it works. We’re never sure what reality we’re actually in and playing with the fourth wall is appropriate if not almost mandatory here.

The film started getting a buzz around festival time and was a big winner, though not the big winner, at the Venice Film Festival in September and no doubt the film, director, actors, cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, and soundtrack, Antonio Sánchez, will get more nominations in the coming awards season.

I would definitely recommend this film to anyone who is in the mood for something that is definitely offbeat. This is a well-made, well-acted, well-directed movie that will definitely have you talking about it after you’ve left the theater.

No comments:

Post a Comment