Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) / **** (R)

Riggan: Michael Keaton
Sam: Emma Stone
Mike: Edward Norton
Lesley: Naomi Watts
Jake: Zach Galifianakis
Laura: Andrea Riseborough
Sylvia: Amy Ryan
Tabitha: Lindsay Duncan

Fox Searchlight presents a film directed by Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu. Written by Iñárritu and Nicolás Giacobone and Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo. Running time: 119 min. Rated R (for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence).

I think I was about 8 years old when I determined that most people are assholes. Don’t read that the wrong way. I didn’t think at such a young age that there was no good in the world or that it was useless to make friends. I included myself in that group of maybe 99 percent of people that are essentially selfish pricks. It is just part of being human. Even for those of us who want to be good to and for others, we spend most of our time struggling to find our way through it all to benefit ourselves as much as possible. Although, that group who desires to benefit other includes a much smaller amount of people. This concept of our human nature seems to be at the heart of the remarkably entertaining movie “Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”.

Another thing I decided at about that same time in my life was that I was going to be a movie star. This did not come to fruition, but I did spend a great deal of my younger life as an actor. “Birdman” focuses on a Broadway theater production being mounted by a movie star—who became famous as a cinematic superhero—trying to make a comeback. The movie is so enveloped by the theater lifestyle; it brought back a flood of memories to me. It was easy for me to remember why I abandoned the lifestyle to pursue a simpler family-based one. That’s not to say professional actors can’t have healthy families; but all of that “drama” really wasn’t for me.

Alejandro Gonzáles-Iñárritu captures the theater work atmosphere with a kinetic camera that rarely stops moving and recreates the magical joy to be found in the labyrinthine world of the building behind that stage. There are moments when it seems the characters are walking through catwalks and hallways, not because it’s the quickest way to get someplace, but because they are there to be explored. Having worked backstage before, I can say from experience that it’s like some sort of jungle gym playground that theater folk literally revel within. I’ve never had another job where the location could provide so much joy and release and escape just to walk through it. Iñárritu’s camera knows all of this about the theater space.

Michael Keaton is inspired casting as the ambitious Riggan Thomson, who 20 years removed from his starmaking role as the superhero Birdman, is looking for some genuine validation by writing, directing and starring in a stage adaptation of the Raymond Caver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. The ambition of this project in theater terms might be equivalent to a NASA mission to find a new home planet in another solar system by traveling blind through a blackhole. Keaton’s own history as the original Batman in the Warner Bros. franchise comic book adaptation and subsequent disappearance into obscurity feeds his performance with a significance no other actor could bring to the role.

Keaton’s performance has been buzzed about as Oscar worthy since long before the film was even a blip on the fall release schedule. The talk is hardly just talk. This is by far Keaton’s strongest performance amongst a career of underrated performances. To say Riggan’s range of emotions and outlook run the gamut throughout the story is selling it lightly. Not only is this man dealing with one of the most stressful professional situations an artist can put himself through, he also has a daughter with whom he’s never really connected and is bouncing back from a rehab stay and suicide attempt acting as his assistant, he’s in need of a new co-star on the eve of the show’s preview performances, the new actor has an attitude of superiority that empowers him to behave in any manner he wants even if it sabotages the production, a female co-star informs him that she’s pregnant and there’s no real guessing as to who the father is, and the New York theater critics won’t cut him any slack as a comic book movie star trying to be a “real” actor. Beyond all that Riggan seems to have superpowers of his own that he doesn’t want anyone to know about. That’s most likely because they are all part of a mental breakdown that involves him having conversations with his Birdman persona.

If that description sounds outrageous… well, you have no idea. “Birdman” is a visual odyssey. Along with the labyrinthine tracking shots exploring every inch of backstage theater space, Iñárritu inundates his audience with a smorgasbord of images, from actions sequences recalling Riggan’s past superheroic shenanigans to visual statements like the colored lights of a festive liquor store or the opening shot of Riggan’s back as he floats a couple of feet above his dressing room floor. For a film as heavy on talking as this, it is rare to see such visual kinetics on display. There is never a down beat due to the ever-moving camera, and when it does stop Iñárritu’s compositions keep your eyes darting to and fro, inspecting every foreground and background detail. 

An amazing supporting cast helps Keaton. Emma Stone as Sam, Riggan’s daughter, lays down some harsh reality for him in one powerful scene. Naomi Watts is a veteran actress who keeps making the same personal mistakes. She grabs one of the film’s biggest laughs in a short verbal exchange with Andrea Riseborough as Riggan’s current neglected love interest. Amy Ryan plays a caring and understanding ex-wife. Zach Galifianakis reemphasizes his public criticisms of the entertainment industry as Riggan’s lawyer.

It is Edward Norton who would threaten to steal the show were Keaton not so commanding in his performance. Norton plays the replacement actor, a talented artist who can’t help but stir the pot at every opportunity he sees. It seems there’s one in every production, an actor with immense talent who makes the rest of the cast at once confident in their undertaking and self-conscious over their own shortcomings. His confidence imbues him with a power to provoke drama where it is not desired backstage and exactly the way it is wanted on. I’ve found this is a person that can show up just about anywhere in life, and Norton plays him to perfection.

Besides its performances and impressive direction, “Birdman” has some of the best dialogue I’ve ever heard. Despite a good number of screenwriters (4) credited to the film, the dialogue has as much consistency as the camera work has kinetic movement. It has more wit than most of the screenplays produced this year combined. Its words bite at the truth of who were are as people, slicing through the personas these people try to portray to get at the human hearts of what they and all of us are in our cores.

That core of who we are is the core of this movie. It is so relatable, not because I’ve been in theater, but because we all are actors in almost every aspect of our lives. Actors have the lucky privilege to escape into other people’s lives for a while. Norton’s character says that on stage is the only place where he doesn’t have to act. Most people don’t have that place to go to. We spend so much of our lives trying to pretend we aren’t selfish; it makes you wonder if the voices inside Riggan’s head don’t have a point. Perhaps we should just embrace that persona we’d rather be, because that asshole is who we really are.

Warning! International trailer contains adult language.

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