By: Gary Murray
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Cast: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Kenny Chin, Jamahl Garrison-Lowe, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence)
Selig Rating: Matinee
Runtime: 119 Min.
Michael Keaton was one of the biggest stars in the world in the 1980s and 1990s.  From Batman to Multiplicity to Pacific Heights, the actor could do it all.  Being equally adept at action, comedy and thrillers, he was the artist of this time.  The 21st century had not been as high profile for the actor, with voice-over work and small roles such as Need for Speed.  His latest film Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) feels more like his comeback picture.  
The film is written by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo and it directed by Inarritu.  He is best known for Babel and 21 Grams.   This film is a definite departure from those works.
The story is of an actor Riggan (Michael Keaton).  He is an movie star who had much success many years ago with a super hero character Birdman.  The role has made him millions of dollars but garnered little respect.  He has bankrolled what is left of his fortune on this play; writing, directing and acting in an adaptation of the Raymond Carver stories 'What we Talk About when we Talk About Love."  In his mind, he hears the Birdman character talking to him and taunting his abilities.  At times, Riggan believes he has super powers and it is played for seriocomic delusions.  
As the play finishes rehearsals, Riggan knows that one of the actors just does not get the material or understand how to deliver it.  His co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggests they hire her off-again, on-again boyfriend Mike (Edward Norton) for the part.  He is a brilliant actor with a perfect memory but very method.  He pushes the buttons of the cast, challenging everyone at every turn.
Added to the mix of problems getting the show going is Riggan's daughter Sam (Emma Stone).  The very young woman is fresh out of re-hab and trying to clean up her life.  She has taken a job as Riggan's assistant which brings its own set of challenges.  She also catches the eye of Mike who still lives with Lesley.
As if all this were enough, Riggan has been sleeping with his other co-star Laura (Andrea Risenborough).  She may or may not be pregnant. There is also the ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) and his worrisome lawyer/show co-backer Jake (Zach Galifianakis).  If it all feels like a soap opera, that is a fairly right comparison.  It is also a world where they confuse love for admiration. 
The more the previews go, the worst the play seems to become.  All of the pressures of live theater melded with the idea that Riggan may or may not be going insane drive the plot.  In the end, we discover that actors are temperamental, crazy and driven.  
This is easily the best performance of Michael Keaton's career. If he were ever going to win a career Oscar, this would be the role to do it.  It has all the elements that the Academy looks for in a career rewarding accolade.  There are few chances left to honor the man and this role could be the one to get him that golden statue.
It is truly amazing how well Ed Norton comes across.  He is one of the more brilliant actors of his generation and has delivered such grand performances in The Score, American History X, Fight Club and The Illusionist (just to name a scant few).  While playing an actor may not seem like such a stretch, he does the egotist to perfection.  It is another strong reading from a strong actor. 
But, there are some major problems with the film.  First off, Director Inarritu does those long takes with a moving hand-held camera too many times.  By trying to get a documentary feel, he makes the audience seasick.  What was once used as a character, it is now used as a style choice and the choice has become stale over the years.  For gosh sake, buy and use a tripod.
The music is basically 1950's style jazz drums which is supposed to give that gritty NYC feel.  But it is too much, too often.  More actual music and less beating of the skins would have made the experience feel more like a movie and less like a beatnik experimental short.   
At times, the entire work feels like a tangent of Brazil, the Terry Gilliam film of many years ago, mixed with something Wes Anderson would direct.  It has that manic feel that everything may fall apart at any given moment and quirky characters one would never meet in the real world.
Another problem is using Raymond Carver as the source material of the play.  While 99% of the planet have never heard of the author who produced half a dozen tomes of short fiction, he is known among some of the more literate readers of fiction.  His work is cherished by those who live and breathe The New Yorker magazine.
In Short Cuts, Robert Altman tried to capture the essence of Raymond Carver.  He got the words right but not the sentiments.  The same critique goes here.  There is a subtle degree of humor in the boozing, lost souls of Carver's work that is somehow missed in the reinterpretation of the material.  It is another group that does not 'get' Carver.  
While some people have been going crazy over Birdman, I found the film a bit too over-the-top, a bit too 'hip back-stage' and more than a bit too long.  In the end, there are few new ideas presented, just some good performances
The Selig Rating Scale:
FULL PRICE – Excellent movie, well worth the price
MATINEE – Good movie
DOLLAR – OK movie
CABLE – No need to rush. Save it for a rainy day.
FREEBIE – Good that I saw it on the big screen but wish I hadn't paid for it.
COMMERCIAL TV – Commercials and cutting to the allotted time will not hurt this one.
FORGET IT! – Bad. If you see this one, do yourself a favor and keep it to yourself.
GET YOUR TORCHES – BAD! – Burn the script, the writer, the director and maybe even the actors!
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