Well, Jesus Christ. This gets the season off to a rocking start.
Michael Keaton pulls off a startling comeback in Alejandro G. Inarritu's blistering showbiz satire.
Chief International Film Critic@AskDebruge
A quarter-century after “Batman” ushered in the era of Hollywood mega-tentpoles — hollow comicbook pictures manufactured to enthrall teens and hustle merch — a penitent Michael Keaton returns with the comeback of the century, “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” a blisteringly hot-blooded, defiantly anti-formulaic look at a has-been movie star’s attempts to resuscitate his career by mounting a vanity project on Broadway. In a year overloaded with self-aware showbiz satires, Alejandro G. Inarritu’s fifth and best feature provides the delirious coup de grace — a triumph on every creative level, from casting to execution, that will electrify the industry, captivate arthouse and megaplex crowds alike, send awards pundits into orbit and give fresh wings to Keaton’s career.
Keaton was a controversial choice to play the Caped Crusader back in 1989, though the role was the best and worst thing that could have happened to the “Mr. Mom” star, who became world-renowned but never found another role of that stature — and who didn’t get nearly the same boost from working with Tarantino (on “Jackie Brown”) that John Travolta and Bruce Willis did (from “Pulp Fiction”). As Riggan Thomson, Keaton isn’t playing himself so much as an archetype that few other actors could have fit: an insecure celebrity whose Faustian decision to embody a superhero called Birdman subsequently made it impossible for critics or audiences to take him seriously in anything else. Riggan is one of those roles, like Norma Desmond in “Sunset Blvd.,” that relies heavily on the actor’s offscreen persona, and it works because audiences know so little about Keaton’s private life, though they find him endearing even when he’s playing narcissistic characters.
It’s hardly the first time the movies have cannibalized themselves for subject matter, and yet, Riggan’s dilemma seems larger than that of one actor. His crisis is somehow universal, possibly even cosmic, as suggested by the apocalyptic sight of a dying star flaming comet-like across the screen at the outset of the picture. Cut to Riggan, levitating calmly in his dressing room the day before previews begin for his big play. It will be more than half an hour before the next obvious splice — a trick that d.p. Emmanuel Lubezki learned on “Children of Men,” and here he extends the illusion of long, uninterrupted takes for nearly the duration of the entire feature as the behind-the-scenes tension escalates through to opening night.
For his Broadway debut, Riggan has selected Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” adapting the short story in such a way as to give himself all the glory, from the bathetic monologue that comes just before intermission, to the ballistic finale (invented for the play), which sees his character blowing his brains out moments before the curtain falls. This is a movie-star approach to theater, where truly great stage actors let their co-stars shine. But then, Riggan has something to prove, surrounding himself with pros — including a respected old friend (Naomi Watts) and the much younger actress he happens to be shagging (Andrea Riseborough) — in hopes that they make him look better. And when an accident allows Riggan to replace a weak player with someone better, Mike (Edward Norton), he leaps at the chance, clearly unprepared for what sharing the spotlight with a real actor entails.
If agreeing to play Birdman represented some sort of artistic sellout earlier in Riggan’s career (a compromise compounded when he agreed to make two sequels), then this Carver play ought to earn back his cred. Or so he figures, surrounding himself with a yes-man producer (Zach Galifianakis, in masterfully subtle control of his comedic impulses, except for one moment, where he inexplicably mispronounces “Martin Scorsees”) and other sycophants. Riggan has even gone so far as to convince himself that he has telekinetic powers, using his mind to move objects and taking advice from the disembodied voice of Birdman (Keaton’s own, lowered a register). But his druggie daughter/assistant, Sam (Emma Stone), calls his bluff, eviscerating his irrelevance in a rant sure to win over a generation too young to have seen Tim Burton’s “Batman.”
This is perhaps one of the unexpected virtues of ignorance referred to by the film’s evocative full title: Riggan approaches the Carver play without all the baggage of a traditional Broadway actor, but then, theatergoers approach it with different expectations as well, ranging from the spiteful prejudgment of a jaded New York Times critic (Lindsay Duncan, trying to seem her Meryl Streepiest) to the naivete of youth. (Oh, to pluck out Sam’s eyes and see Broadway through them!) The film virtually overflows with references, to contemporary blips such as Justin Bieber and established minds like Roland Barthes, managing to be simultaneously crude and urbane, while speaking to different audiences on whatever intellectual level they prefer.
As for intent, Inarritu and co-writers Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., Armando Bo are clearly taking a generational stand with this script, which mourns a time when Hollywood actors had the chance to play flawed and fascinating men, as opposed to one-dimensional supermen. Like last year’s “The Great Beauty,” “Birdman” finds itself parsing a deep creative and existential crisis, never allowing its justifiable cynicism to drown out what idealism remains, even as it observes that our finest screen actors — Michael Fassbender, Robert Downey Jr. and Jeremy Renner among them — are all cashing comicbook paychecks these days (even as it conveniently pretends that Norton’s “Hulk” never happened).
Norton very nearly steals the show from Keaton at one point. Revealing body and soul alike, both stars are inviting us to laugh at aspects of their real selves, though Norton initially seems the more impressive actor, amplifying his own intense commitment to realism to absurd extremes — with the hilarious result that finding himself in the moment during an early performance proves a rather dramatic cure for his character’s offstage impotence. At first, Keaton doesn’t seem capable of reaching as deep, either in reality or as Riggan, though that’s before the humiliation of wandering through Times Square crowds nearly naked.
“Birdman” offers by far the most fascinating meta-deconstruction of an actor’s ego since “Being John Malkovich,” and one that leaves no room for vanity. From the moment Keaton first removes his wig to the sight of him wrapped in Batman-like facial bandages, his performance reveals itself in layers. The role demands that he appear superficial and stiff onstage, while behaving anything but as the character’s personal troubles mount and his priorities begin to align — at which point, he appears in a dual role, donning the ridiculous Birdman costume to hover, seen only by Riggan, like a cracked-out version of Broadway’s own “Harvey.”
Judged by Howard Hawks’ quality standard — “three great scenes, no bad ones” — “Birdman” features at least a dozen of the year’s most electrifying onscreen moments (scrambled, so as to avoid spoilers): the levitation, the hallucination, the accident, the fitting, the daughter, the critic, the ex-wife, the erection, the kiss, the shot, the end and Times Square. Most films would be lucky to have one scene as indelible as any of these, and frankly, it’s a thrill to see Inarritu back from whatever dark, dreary place begat “21 Grams,” “Babel” and “Biutiful,” three phony, contrived melodramas engineered to manipulate, while posing as gritty commentaries on the harsh world we inhabit.
With “Birdman,” the director has broken from his rut of relying on shaky handheld camerawork to suggest “realism,” or an invasive Gustavo Santaolalla score to force the desired reactions, instead finding fresh ways to delve into the human condition. (He has even altered his onscreen credit, condensing “Gonzalez” to a mere “G.,” as if to acknowledge this new chapter.) Yes, the film is preoccupied with an aging actor’s psyche, but it also addresses fatherhood, marriage, personal integrity and the enduring question of the legacy we leave behind — as in an amusing scene in which Riggan imagines being upstaged by “Batman and Robin” star George Clooney in his obituary. Above all, it is an extremely clever adaptation of Carver’s short story, simultaneously postmodern (ironically, a rather retro label) in its meta self-parody and cutting-edge, owing to the dynamism of its style.
Circling shark-like around Keaton, then darting off to stalk other actors, Lubezki’s camera is alert and engaged at all times, an active participant in the nervous backstage drama. Taking a cue from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope,” the meticulously blocked shoot cleverly finds ways to mask cuts, using invisible visual effects to stitch together various scenes so it appears that the entire film is one continuous take, even though the events take place over several weeks and in various uptown Gotham locations — primarily Broadway’s St. James Theater, but venturing out anywhere that Riggan can walk or Birdman can fly.
In addition to being a virtuoso stunt in its own right, this single-shot illusion serves to address the critique that screen acting is somehow less demanding than stage acting, since there are no conventional editing tricks in place to shape the performances. The cast has no choice but to ante up, which everyone does in spades, and the film is built generously enough that everyone gets ample time to impress (although it should be noted that none of the background sexual intrigues amount to anything).
Inarritu’s approach is mind-boggling in its complexity, nearly as demanding on Lubezki as “Gravity” must have been, such that even seemingly minor jokes, as when the camera spies the drummer responsible for the pic’s restless jazz score (by Antonio Sanchez) lurking on the edge of the frame, had to be perfectly timed. It’s all one big magic trick, one designed to remind how much actors give to their art even as it disguises the layers of work that go into it.
'Birdman': Venice Review
2:00 AM PDT 8/27/2014 by Todd McCarthy
The Bottom Line
The film's exhilarating originality, black comedy and tone that is at once empathetic and acidic will surely strike a strong chord with audiences looking for something fresh that will take them somewhere they haven't been before.
Dating back to his international breakthrough with Amores Perros 14 years ago, Inarritu's films have always coursed with energy and challenges embraced. Here, he and his indispensable cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have gone the extra mile to make a film that, like a far more complicated and sophisticated version of what Alfred Hitchcock did in Rope in 1948, tries to create the illusion of having been filmed all in one take.
Birdman, which bears the rather enigmatic subtitle “Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,” is not only centered on the world of the theater but takes place almost entirely within or very near the venerable St. James Theater on West 44th Street. This is where faded big screen luminary Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is about to begin previews for what he hopes will bring him renewed acclaim and respectability, ego boosters that have eluded him in the two decades since he decamped from the Hollywood mountaintop upon saying no to Birdman 4.
Of course, Riggan knows he's fated to always be Birdman; he still keeps a poster from the franchise on his dressing room wall and the character's voice sometimes squawks at him like a challenging alter ego. But he's now put everything on the line, including his own money, to mount a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which he's written, is directing and is co-starring in with Lesley (Naomi Watts), another film star making her Broadway debut, and Laura (Andrea Riseborough), a sometime lover who's more keen on him than vice versa.
When the other male actor in the piece startlingly becomes incapacitated, Lesley's boyfriend Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a major film name, immediately volunteers to step into the breach. This is a godsend for the box office but a wild card in terms of the quartet's dynamics, as the quicksilver Mike is a fiendish manipulator (quite the jerk, actually). After unsettling Riggan at his first rehearsal by having already memorized his part and then demanding rewrites, Mike detonates the initial public preview by drinking real gin (this is Carver country, after all) instead of water onstage.
More raw nerves are supplied by Riggan's straight-from-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone), whom Dad has perhaps misguidedly engaged as his personal assistant. Riggan has to listen to Sam's tirades about how his resistance to Twitter and blogging make him even more a has-been than he was already, this on top of Laura's news that she's pregnant and his concerns over what outrage Mike might provoke at the second preview.
There are enough awkward predicaments, secret liaisons, theatrical pranks, opened and closed doors and offenses given and taken in Birdman to fill a Feydeau farce. But while Inarritu, who wrote the script with his Biutiful co-screenwriter Nicolas Giacobone, playwright Alexander Dinelaris and The Last Elvis director and co-writer Armando Bo, certainly triggers any number of dark and even catch-in-your-throat laughs, he's out for bigger game here on several fronts.
Riggan's struggle to regain self-respect and a sense of accomplishment is an ambition attacked as sheerest vanity by Sam and Mike, who enjoy provoking him further by pursuing a little dalliance. Beyond this central subject, the film takes vivid X-rays of such matters as creative egos and insecurities, spontaneity versus careful planning, what one does or does not do with power and influence, the positives and negatives of fame and the contrast between the public impact of a controlled event like a theater performance and an impromptu happening such as Riggan’s sprint through a jammed Times Square wearing nothing but his underpants (don't ask).
Propelled by outbursts of virtuoso jazz drumming by Antonio Sanchez, the story's action spans several days but plays out in a visual continuum of time unbroken — until the very end — by any evident cuts; it's as if the already legendary opening 13-minute take in Gravity had persisted through the entire movie. It's no coincidence that the same cinematographer, the incomparable Lubezki, shot both films, although the effect here is very different; as lucid and controlled as the camerawork may be, it's also bold, propulsive, even raw at times and invariably in the right place at the right time to catch the actors as they dart in and out, get in each others' faces or ponder the effect of what they've just said or done to someone else. The scene transitions are handled with breathtaking seamlessness and, once you realize what's going on and stop watching for signs of cuts as the camera goes through a door or enters a dark space, you get into the groove of a film whose rhythms are entirely controlled by the movement of the performers in relation to that of the camera — without the subtle visual disruption that even the most graceful cut must make.
If there is a problem from a dramaturgical point of view, it's that the roles of the play's other actors, to some extent Mike but more so Laura and Lesley, recede instead of deepen as opening night approaches. And one scene, which feels more like score settling than anything real, simply doesn't ring true: in a theater district bar, Riggan runs into the formidable Tabitha (a withering Lindsay Duncan), the all-powerful drama critic for the town's (once) all-powerful leading newspaper; when he quietly offers her a drink, she tells the man to his face that he's an unwelcome Hollywood interloper on her turf and promises that, even though she hasn't seen it yet, “I'm going to kill your play.” Vendettas of this sort might have been pursued on occasion in the old days, but for a critic to announce one's intentions like this directly to the artist seems all but impossible, even ridiculous, today; the victim would likely call the paper's arts editor at once.
An actor who himself has waited a very long time, and perhaps with diminishing hope, to make a comeback, Keaton soars perhaps higher than ever as a thespian with something to prove when not wearing a funny suit. Casting any sense of vanity out the window — every vestige of aging skin and thinning hair is revealed by the camera — the actor catches Riggan's ambition and discouragement and everything in between; he's criticized and beaten down, even, and perhaps especially, by those closest to him, although he does receive some reassurance and understanding from an unexpected source, his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan). Keaton skillfully conveys how this old bird can let even the most alarming setbacks just slide off his once-feathered back to get on with the show, one his whole future rides upon — unless, of course, it doesn't.
Norton is crackerjack as the bad boy actor whose gigantic ego does constant battle with equally large insecurities, while Stone stands out among the women, particularly in two nocturnal theater rooftop scenes she shares with Norton (in one, they play a nifty little session of Truth or Dare). Zach Galifianakis plays it straight as Riggan's exasperated producer and attorney.
Shot in 30 days almost entirely at the St. James, this is a film that will excite discerning viewers but will likely electrify professionals in the popular arts, primarily because it's a work that seeks to go beyond the normal destinations for mainstream films — and manages to make it to quite an exciting place.
27 August, 2014 | By Mark Adams, chief film critic
Dir: Alejandro González Iñárritu. US. 2014. 119mins
A magnificent and enthralling film that fits into no easy genre bracket, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) – to give it its full title – is a technical tour de force, a beautifully performed and smartly scripted black comedy that will leave its audience keen to head back for more, perhaps just to work out how Alejandro González Iñárritu staged some of the film’s more striking moments. Plus it finally offers the talented Michael Keaton a role that really shows off his range and charisma and one that should see him in contention when it comes to awards season.
If Michael Keaton is very much the moving, complex and troubled face of Birdman, there is no getting away from the sheer polish and precision that Alejandro González Iñárritu has brought to the film.
Mexican-born Iñárritu – who helped launch the new wave of Latin American cinema with his 2000 film Amores Perros - follows hot on the heels of his countryman Alfonso Cuaron, who opened the last year’s Venice Film Festival with awards favourite Gravity.
Birdman might lack the ‘wow’ factor Cauron’s disaster-in-space film, but it is just as technically complex in its own right, while also allowing for a series of striking – and often very funny and insightful – performances to drive its enthralling story.
While apparently traditional – the film is the story of a successful middle-aged actor at a creative crossroads and investing all he has on a risky Broadway show – Birdman (which is set to open in the US in October) is a real delve into the mind of a man who is battling internal and external forces (from his ego and dark imagination through to troublesome fellow actors) as he tries to pull together family, career and his own fragile sanity.
What helps give the film its intriguing edge is that Iñárritu attempts to present the story largely in real-time, meaning long and complex takes, extremely clever cutting and intricate staging.
Keaton stars as former cinema superhero star Riggan Thompson, who hopes that staging an ambitious Broadway play (he has adapted a Raymond Carver story, funded the production and also directs and stars in it) will revive his career and see him taken more seriously.
Haunted by his ‘Birdman’ superhero character (in more ways than one – he hears Birdman talking to him, is distracted by the Birdman 3 poster in his dressing room and simply wants to move beyond his Hollywood past) he hopes treading the boards will legitimise him as an artist.
When one of his actors is injured in a freak accident with opening night looming he finds a replacement in the form of loose cannon actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who is guaranteed to help sell tickets but has a reputation for being trouble. Shiner is in a relationship with the play’s lead actress Lesley (Naomi Watts), but Riggan’s best friend – and the show’s producer – Jake (Zach Galifianakis, playing things pretty straight) knows his profile will help sell tickets.
As the show heads towards opening night Riggan must deal with Shiner’s massive and challenging ego; the gentle demands of his girlfriend and co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough); worries about his fresh-from-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who is also working as his assistant; visits from supportive ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), as well as trying to convince famously barbed theatre critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) not to savage his Broadway debut.
The play that Riggan mounts at New York’s historic St. James Theater on 44th Street is based on Raymond Carver’s short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, with the story reflecting Riggan’s own search for love and acceptance. The theatre – from its weaving corridors to its roof-top views over the city – is a vital character in the film, just as are the teeming New York streets and dingy bars when the characters make brief outside trips from the venue.
Michael Keaton is superb as the tormented Riggan. Clearly the fact that he played Batman in Tim Burton’s two Batman films carries considerable resonance, but he has a rare ability to easily blend comedy and drama as well being a great physical performer, seemingly at ease with the complex shooting style of the film. He is perfectly balanced by Edward Norton’s delightfully monstrous Mike Shiner – the pair may be character mirror images, but they also provoke, challenge and bring out the best in each other.
Norton has a lot of fun with the role – Shiner’s hilarious on-stage erection is a classic moment – and dovetails perfectly with Keaton’s easy comedy style. In fact, the rest of the cast are also impressive. Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough have gently powerful moments, while Emma Stone’s Sam takes on a larger role as the film draws on.
But if Michael Keaton is very much the moving, complex and troubled face of Birdman, there is no getting away from the sheer polish and precision that Alejandro González Iñárritu has brought to the film. The pure sense of control – working in beautiful tandem with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki – is astounding, with the film likely to feature strongly when awards are being handed out.