Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Review: "Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)"
I always thought “Watchmen” was the anti-superhero superhero movie, but this one takes the cake. It’s not so much against superheroes as movies based on their comic books, registering as a spit-flecked denunciation of the way such flicks saturate our culture, almost like a spreading disease that uses up actors’ careers and audiences’ time.
“Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” is an obsidian-black comedy about Riggan Thomson, an over-60 actor who played a costumed hero decades ago and has struggled to do anything equally consequential since. He’s played by Michael Keaton, who knows something about that.
If this sounds like stunt casting, that’s because it is -- but then this whole movie directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (“21 Grams”) is a gimmick, if a very clever one.
Thomson has now sunk most of his heart, soul and bank account into mounting a Broadway production based on the work of short story master Raymond Carver, which he also wrote and is directing.
At one point he finds himself facing off with a hostile New York Times theater critic (Lindsay Duncan), who announces that she’s going to close the play with a vicious review, even though she hasn’t seen it, because she resents Hollywood dilettantes invading her sacred space where real art is made, taking up a theater (the actual St. James) that could be better used for, well, just about anything.
We suspect her lips are channeling the thoughts of Iñárritu, who co-wrote the screenplay (along with three others), and they’re really talking about caped crusader movies.
Keaton is a marvel in this movie, providing an emotionally naked performance as a self-consumed man who has spent so much of his life worrying about being appreciated that he hasn’t ever really inhabited the present tense. Riggan is constantly reminded of this by his estranged daughter, Sam (Emma Thomson), recently graduated from rehab and hired as his assistant -- partly out of a sense of guilt and partly to keep an eye on her for his ex-wife (Amy Ryan).
Iñárritu created the role expressly for Keaton, which was deft, but then unwisely keeps getting in the way of his lead actor.
The director makes all sorts of showy creative choices, like constructing the entire movie out of (seemingly) uninterrupted tracking shots, so we’re constantly shadowing the actors like a ghostly presence. Similarly, the music score (by Antonio Sanchez) is made up almost entirely of percussion instruments, but the disjointed beats bump the movie off its rhythm rather than riding one.
Riggan professes not to think much about being Birdman, but in fact he’s verily haunted by his feathered former alter-ego. The voice of the hero speaks to him (Keaton’s guttural rasp is wonderfully eerie), offering alternate praise and scorn, trying to convince Riggan to give up his ridiculous dream and return to costume work. In private moments when the alter egos are conferring, Riggan performs feats of telekinesis that, even if imagined (?), help buck up his brittle psyche.
The play is teetering on the edge of disaster. Riggan replaces his awful second lead actor, injured during rehearsal, with Mike Shiner, who’s brilliant but notoriously difficult to work with, and he’s played by Edward Norton, who also has a reputation for… but I think you get it now.
Mike is greeted as the production’s rescuer but soon sets about as its chief saboteur, stealing Riggan’s limelight in the press and even stopping a preview performance cold when his (real) gin is confiscated. He’s also the boyfriend of the lead actress, Lesley (Naomi Watts), a bundle of neurotic self-doubt, who recruited him but soon comes to regret it. Meanwhile, Riggan is having an affair with the other, much-younger actress (Andrea Riseborough).
Flitting around the edges of the story is Jake (Zach Galifianakis), Riggan’s lawyer, producing partner and underappreciated fixit man.
The performances are delicious in “Birdman,” particularly Keaton, who will deservedly be the subject of a lot of Academy Awards conversations. I just wish Iñárritu had enough faith in his star to let him shine in the spotlight, instead of constantly distracting us with his showy, look-at-me direction.
Earlier in this review I called the movie clever, and it is that; but it’s the sort of feckless, selfish clever that feels compelled to keep reminding you how clever it is.