Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

In the oddly punctuated "Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)," Michael Keaton plays a Hollywood has-been named Riggan Thompson taking one last stab at seriousness as a Broadway hyphenate, pouring the last drabs of his comic-book movie fortune into a Raymond Carver adaptation and watching - with half desperation, half resignation - as it threatens to crumble before opening.

First, a piece of equipment falls from the rafters onto the head of Riggan's co-actor (the piece, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," has roles for two men and two women), taking him out of eligibility. Riggan's producer and attorney (Zach Galifianakis in a range-showing role) manages to land Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), whose mere presence all but guarantees a Tony nomination; Shiner's a Method actor, or enough of one to try to fuck his lead actress when they're in bed together onstage. Both actresses (Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts) are melting ice cream cones of insecurity who share a dressing-room French kiss after bucking each other up. Meanwhile, Riggan's daughter (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab, loiters about as his assistant, occasionally delivering withering assessments of his absentee parenting skills. The Times' theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) forewarns Riggan that she looks forward to closing his play with a savage write-up, something no self-respecting reviewer would ever say. (I, for one, hope - though certainly do not expect - to love each movie I see.) And we haven't even touched on the voice in Riggan's head, incessantly reminding him of his failures and meaninglessness.

The director is Alejandro González Iñárritu, who gave us "Amores Perros," "21 Grams" and "Babel" before earning a four-year sabbatical with 2010's disgusting "Biutiful." He's back in peak form here, working with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to craft a vertiginous perpetual-motion machine of inner torment, farcical backstage goings-on, and sudden superpowers that give the illusion of a movie shot in one take, complete with Birdman in flight. The happiest side effect of this choice is that it gives the comedy a propulsive force, so that when the script stays witty for several scenes in a row, the laughs build on one another and there seem to be more of them than there probably are. The drawback is that - as with any thrill ride - when you're ready to get off, you want off, and the movie takes an extra fifteen minutes or so to end twice.

Some are calling the picture Michael Keaton's "The Wrestler," and we do feel a connection to Riggan simply by virtue of the similarities between Keaton's career and his. To me, his remains the definitive movie Batman, infinitely funnier and more interesting than Christian Bale's. He's too good an actor and too likable a presence to have gone missing for so long, and an Oscar nomination for his work here would be richly deserved. Credit must also be paid to Edward Norton, who raises the IQ of any movie by twenty points and whose own castmate-alienating ways have deprived us of his presence for too long, as well as to Galifianakis and Stone. The last shot of "Birdman" is a bit of a cheat - and the parenthetical in the title remains a mystery - but it has moments that grab us, pummel us and roust us from the stupor of so much of the current cinema.

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