film review: Birdman (2015)

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film review: Birdman (2015)

I would definitely watch a Birdman film. Well, I suppose I did watch a Birdman film. Just not, you know, an actual Birdman film. Or did I? All I know is that Marvel should get on that.

And it better star Michael Keaton.

This Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is a frenetic, fractured, beautiful work of madness. Alejandro González Iñárritu has taken a fairly typical setting, the drama of back stage at the theatre production, and completely stereotyped characters and created something magical out of it all.

Michael Keaton (welcome back Michael, you have been missed!) plays Riggan Thompson, a washed up faded movie star, only remembered now for his role in the hugely successful Birdman superhero franchise in the early ’90s. For reasons inferred, Thompson is putting on a production on Broadway of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love – written by, starring and directed by Riggan Thompson.

Ed Norton also appears, on sparkling form, as Mike Shiner, a self-important but successful Broadway actor and boyfriend of Naomi Watts’s Lesley, one of the two leading ladies in the play. Andrea Riseborough then completes the company as Laura, Thompson’s current love. Outside of the play Thompson’s ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and his “troubled” daughter, Emma Stone, feature too, and now we have our melange.

Iñárritu’s made some very curious choices here, the pounding purcussive score, the one long take contrivance. I usually find these types of things distracting to the point of irritation, but here, in this hurricane of a film they make sense. Their constant presence pulling us along through bizarreness of our leading man’s journey.

And what a journey.

I’ve always liked Michael Keaton, like Timothy Dalton is my Bond, Keaton will always be my Batman, depsite how that may seem like belittling these days. Kids, you have to realise, back in the early ’90s, superhero films weren’t like they were now. Tim Burton’s Batman bears scant resembalance to the likes of The Avengers. But I digress.

Keaton is fantastic in this. Actually I don’t know if I need to say more. Ok, I’ll say a little bit more. He works because Birdman is as much a comedy as a drama and that’s not an easy thing to do. Christian Bale, say, is a great actor but I couldn’t see him in this. He’s not funny. Keaton’s got both skills in buckets.

I could mention the others, everyone is good in this. In fact, the only scene where I felt a little emotional (read: I may have shed a tear) was a scene with Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough. I’m still not a huge fan of Emma Stone but, she does the job. On a side note: I’m starting to think that her eyes might actually be bigger than her mouth.

It’s a little odd though, not to comment on the actors because it’s a film with a lot of respect for actors. They’re all just trying to do the best they can in a world that alternately wants to build them up and take them down. Fair enough, but it’s not what makes the film.

I’d be remiss as well if I didn’t mention that in creating the pedestal for the actor, Iñárritu and co. (a New York playwright included) are a little mean about critics. It’s simply not the case to say these days that they have nothing on the line. Well, maybe it is for certain Broadway theatre critics but hey, these days everyone in media is scraping their way.

In fact, Iñárritu has a lot to say about a lot of things in Birdman. He wants to talk about actors and critics, blockbusters and indies, but he also wants to talk thematically, about ego and id, about relationships, about perception and reality. It’s all simultaneous interesting and banal. It’s fun that he’s dealing with it but he’s saying nothing new.

But, it works. It’s not what he’s saying but how he says it that’s the real triumph of Birdman. It’s how he’s managed to balance the cliche of the story with the fantastical excess of Riggan Thompson’s breakdown all in one flying, twisting, turning take.

To explain a little, to me, I feel like the setting is plain because mad stuff happens behind the scene all the time in theatre. I’m not a big theatre person, but if what I saw in 3 years as the tech manager in the UCD drama society is anything to go by, they have the absurdity of theatre down to a tee.

That’s why Birdman a triumph. The writers, Iñárritu with Alexander Dinelaris, Nicolás Giacobone and Armando Bo have pulled together the elements and blended them into a perfect storm. For example, if the setting was truly ridiculous, Riggan’s story would get lost in the farce. By putting it in the theatre you can have the idea of a Hollywood star trying to legitmise himself with theatre but you also legitimately match his breakdown to his surroundings. One up for symbolism. You’re having your cake and eating it.

There’s so much going on in Birdman that you could point anywhere and take that as the thing that makes it brillant. Personally, I loved its riff on the theatre – that made it for me – but you might find something else that you like. Or hate it. Who knows. Go see it. If anything, you won’t be bored.


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