Friday, November 14, 2014

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Walking the Walk and Talk
Every Man His Alcatraz (or That Obscure Object of Film-Making)

Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) is an actor who's been on a stale streak for awhile after making a name for himself in a string of superhero movies (as an act of integrity he didn't do the fourth one) and is now trying to make a forthright comeback of sorts by ambitiously staging a play on Broadway that he has written, is directing and is also starring in. The play, based on a Raymond Carver story* is as far afield from "Birdman" (the superhero character he played) as one can get, and the staging of the play proves to be problematic what with difficult actors, difficult material, and that the lead may be a bit crazy—cuckoo, if you'd rather. Left alone, which he rarely is, Riggan hears the voice of "Birdman" in his head berating him for past failures and current insecurities and, then, every once in awhile, Thomas displays a knack for telekinesis—moving objects without touching them.

Or more accurately, smashing objects without touching them. Riggan is a bit out of control, mercurial, and seems more than a bit unstable, all the while he's trying to keep his vanity project together. An accident (or is it?) on the stage one day eliminates the actor he's having the most problems with and replaces him with an improvement—Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), one of the better actors working, but also one of the most annoying, for his insistence on "truth" in performance. 
Is Thomas rolling his eyes, or is he willing something to happen?
Complicating matters is the presence of Riggan's daughter (Emma Stone) recently out of rehab, Shiner's wife (Naomi Watts), also in the play, a crusty theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) who is determined to trash the play sight unseen for Riggan's impertinence for trying to prove he's an actor instead of a celebrity, and Shiner's narcissism that hogs the limelight (and is in conflict with Riggan's narcissism). Through it all, Riggan's friend and lawyer (Zach Galifanikis) serves as buffer and punching bag.
Those who've followed the movies of Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful) know that Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is as close to a knockabout comedy as he can get. The self-possessed tribulations of actors amid the various roles they play are the stuff of both comedy and tragedy—tragedy in the intimate conflicts they struggle with within and without, and comedy in the lack of perspective they can possess entangled in those struggles. We're all actors. We all play roles, and sometimes we get lost in the performance of our lives—our self-made traps, self-imposed prisons. Every bird-man his Alcatraz.

Now, here comes Thomas, in the performance of his life, confined to a two-block radius of Broadway, trying to achieve more than he might be able to, and performing a dialogue with more than himself, trying to stretch himself in a flight of fancy while his past tries to sabotage it. He wants to soar, but the Birdman of his past keeps pushing him to the ground. 
Michael Keaton has never really retired from movies—he's been doing small parts here and there—but he hasn't top-lined a movie since his own fine directorial debut, The Merry Gentleman. But, it is good to have him back in something with a bit of substance. And, of course, he's perfect for this—an odd semi-meta-performance (at one point he says "I had a dream that I died in a plane-crash, and the picture they had in the paper was Clooney."). But, Batman never really held him back—fact is, he was always a better Bruce Wayne than Batman, a performance too still and cossetted in black rubber—it just didn't show him at his manic, quirky best. He's also better, like here, in an ensemble: in The Other Guys, one of his small parts of late, he has two scenes—one where he's playing off Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, where he is funny and exceptional, and the other—a monologue—where he falls flat. He is a character actor, at his mercurial best bouncing off the talents of others, and he and Norton have great scenes that are joys to watch for how good both are, in completely different styles. The part is tailor-made for Keaton, and he rises, literally, to the challenge.
At one point, Iñárritu stages an action set-piece that looks like the chaos
of every CGI superhero movie ever made
And the director doesn't make it easy for him. The thing is about theater and Iñárritu keeps the locale focused in and around New York's St. James Theater (you get to know every nook and cranny of it) and shoots the movie in a seemingly seamless stream of long "takes," where the actors have to really act and for quite a sustained while, then migrate in steadicammed transitons of "walk-and-talks" that Scorsese used frequently and became famous as a fast, busy way to throw out exposition on TV's "West Wing"—it's just that nobody's tried this so steadfastly since Hitchcock's Rope—not even the supposedly continuous Cloverfield could resist interruptions of static to cover the gaps.   

At times, as is the writer-director's way, the film is very obtuse, trying to communicate something while not being obvious about it to the point where it's obscure and slightly unreachable. Throughout the course of the movie, he also makes no distinction between reality and fantasy, between inner and outer dialogue, so it's often not easy to trust the image or the sound on-screen: does Riggan have telekinesis or is this all in his head and just some manifestation of control that he thinks he has over his Universe? Why does the film resolve the way it does, with a self-inflicted act of violence, for the visual joke of the Birdman's costume, or is it being precious with a well-worn cliche about self-defeating actions?  Sometimes the deflection doesn't quite work, but just as often, as in the film's final shot, it makes for a sublime moment, not too obvious, and a fine melding of fantasy and reality.

* I don't know whether it's interesting or significant or not, but Riggan's adaptation is taken from the heavily edited version of Carver's story and even includes a monologue not written by Carver, but by his editor Gordon Lish.

Still-life Superhero:  Keaton's Batman never moved much and had his
performance cossetted by leather.

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