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Michael Keaton in Birdman: Daring, Different, and Unmissable Cinema (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | November 9, 2014 | 1 Comment

 

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) and Mike Shriner (Edward Norton) argue about art and acting in Birdman(For those wary of minor-spoilers, proceed with caution).

Birdman is about the truth; what it is and what it isn’t, how we mess with it and shape it to our liking, and the way it affects our perceptions of everything. In one scene, two characters, sitting on the ledge of a building, play a game of “Truth or Dare”. Later, a pair of rival actors share tales of heartbreaking childhood abuse, only to take them back and say “I made that up.” And, throughout, our notions of what’s “real” and what’s “fake” are being toyed with.

Most of all, however, this is a movie about art, which can never be “true”…or maybe, in some way, always is. The film, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, takes a deep dive into the mind of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a has-been A-lister famous for playing the superhero Birdman in a trilogy of trashy superhero blockbusters. Twenty years after he turned down the fourth installment, he’s lost everything: his success, his fortune, his marriage, and, most crucially, his relevance. Risking it all to rejuvenate his career, his life, and his cultural importance, he’s directing, writing, and starring in a serious, highbrow Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. There’s just one problem: everything. After a co-star suffers a serious injury, Riggan brings in Mike Shriner (Edward Norton), a conceited, cultured critic’s darling of an actor who’s in his element when performing but a wreck offstage. He also has a past with co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts), who’s dreamed of Broadway for years but feels hopelessly unprepared when she gets there. Another actress, Laura (Andrea Riseborough) may or may not be pregnant with Riggan’s child, while Riggan’s twenty something out-of-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone) deals with life as the daughter of a celebrity. And then there’s his producer/lawyer/best-friend Jake (Zach Galifinakis), former-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), and the stuffy New York Times critic whose review may decide the fate of the play. As egos clash, new tensions arise, and opening night draws near, it becomes unclear whether Riggan can survive torturous previews to pull off the production and prove himself to everyone.

This is a film like none you’ve seen before. The script by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobon, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo mixes satirical showbiz snark, cleverly nasty humor, and unflinchingly messy midlife gloom to create an enthralling, multilayered character study.

Birdman is very much an actor’s film, but Iñárritu deserves credit for his inventive, insightful, eccentric voice and daring directorial vision. For all the script’s wit and wisdom, this is a true technical marvel and Iñárritu accents the film with quirky, innovative touches that make this is a one-of-a-kind achievement.

“One-of-a-kind” certainly describes Emmanuel Lubezki’s brilliant cinematography, which creates the illusion of one breathless tracking shot. Lubezki has been praised for his incredible work, and he’s attempted long takes before (check out the 17-minute opening to Gravity). But here, he’s attempted and succeeded at creating something singularly spectacular. During production, takes lasted 7-10 minutes (a grueling nightmare for actors and everyone else involved), yet the cuts are never obvious and the result is a seamless experience. You are there, following around Riggan and his fellow actors as they navigate around the theater (and, occasionally, the streets and skyscrapers of the city). Lubezki’s camerawork is sometimes strikingly commanding, like a time lapse that segue ways from night to day or a shot that frames Riggan in a mirror as he talks to a costar. For the most part, though, we get a backstage pass down corridors, in dressing rooms, and onstage. It’s a more stunning visual effect than anything CGI-related.

As we float through the theater, Antonio Sanchez’s anxious jazz drumming provides the perfect soundtrack.  His unique, versatile rhythms provide both a sense of edgy unease and an underlying tempo.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) contemplates life in BIrdmanAnd then there’s the starry ensemble cast, stuffed with A-listers pushing themselves to do their best work. Everyone’s been talking about Michael Keaton’s performance and how it’ll signal a comeback for his career. That may not be true, but his performance here is undeniably impressive, and he dominates every scene he’s in. There are obvious comparisons between Riggan and Keaton’s careers; both scored big in comedic blockbusters and sealed their legacy by playing superheroes before saying no to sequels and falling out of the public eye. The stakes may be smaller, but Birdman is to Keaton what the Carver play is to Riggan, a big chance to tell the world “I’m still here” and, as Riggan says, “finally do some work that actually means something”. Keaton has claimed the role has little to do with his own life, but it’s impossible to deny the honest, naked emotion he displays. Riggan is irresponsible and plain messed up in almost every way; he’s ruined just about every important relationship he has. In one scene, he chides his daughter for smoking, and then precedes to light a cigarette for himself. Keaton’s performance favors rage over regret, mixing deep sorrow with bubbling anger. Like all of us, he has something to prove not just to everyone around him, but himself. He’s putting everything on the line for this play because he wants people to like him, to care about him, to applaud him. Honestly, that’s as basic a human desire as any. Keaton’s biggest achievement lies in how he manages to find the humanity in Riggan’s messy psyche and, against all odds, keep us rooting for him to succeed.

It’s a great performance that gives Keaton plenty of room to show off, but the world of Birdman is populated by all kinds of characters. Norton’s Mike Shriner makes for a fascinating flipped coin to Keaton’s Riggan. While Riggan poses for family photos and signs autographs for Birdman fans, Mike is gracing the cover of The New York Times “Arts and Leisure” section. He’s everything Riggan’s not: pretentious, artsy, relevant, popular, and prestigious (“Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige”, he memorably sniffs). Norton’s at the top of his game here, performing his lines with a perfectly-pitched pretension that masks the wounded soul that lies beneath. In his first script-read with Riggan, Mike already has his lines memorized, and by the end of the scene he’s acting as director. Yet, as revealed later, he’s hopeless when he’s not in front of an audience. As he later tells Riggan: “Long after you’re gone, I’m gonna be on that stage, earning my living, bearing my soul, wrestling with complex human emotions, ’cause that’s what we do”. It’s hard to imagine another actor so delightfully imbuing the role with such self-important, cultured sophistication.

Sam (Emma Stone) in the final shot of BirdmanAs Riggan’s equally messed-up daughter Sam, Emma Stone is all exasperated millennial frustration and bored, lingering cluelessness. Growing up blinded by the unwanted spotlight of the media has taken it’s toll on Sam, who’s just gotten out of rehab. Riggan’s misguided parenting (or lack of) may have caused many of her problems, and Stone unleashes all her character’s emotions in a miraculous minute-long rant. “You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You don’t”, she yells at Riggan.

Stone isn’t the only one who turns in terrific work, despite a limited amount of screen time. There’s not a bad performance here, whether it’s Naomi Watts’ tender anxiousness as a Broadway rookie or Andrea Riseborough’s angry turn as Riggan’s girlfriend or the friendly ambition of Zach Galifinakis’s performance as the show’s producer. This is a film about performances, and filled with great ones.

As Riggan approaches the opening night of his play, it becomes clear things won’t turn out smoothly, and Birdman is too weird and twisted for a happy ending. Without spoiling anything, I’ll say this: the film’s finale is shocking, ambiguous, and, depending on your interpretation, either tragic or hopeful. Let’s just say it makes for good conversation.

Ultimately, Birdman can’t help but feel slightly dissappointing, for reasons I can’t quite decide. For all it’s brilliance, the film feels like one big illusion, a high-wire trick. Another viewing might be necessary.

Riggan (Michael Keaton) floats above NYC in BirdmanJust like Riggan and his cast and crew risk it all in the pursuit of great art, Iñárritu, Keaton, and the rest of them have created a bizarre, beautiful, and bold piece of filmmaking. It may be imperfect, but this is cinema as daring and different as anything else.

Comments

One Response to “Michael Keaton in Birdman: Daring, Different, and Unmissable Cinema (Flack’s Review)”

  1. Abid
    November 19th, 2014 @ 9:48 pm

    the review of the movie is excellent and touched on many points such as illusion vs. reality.
    I did not liker the movie because the extreme use of bad language which is not the reality of what is going behind the scene.
    The story could be better in a different form. Aside from the good acting of Rigain the movie is not more than one star.

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