Tuesday, January 20, 2015


Birdman Movie Poster

Heralded as Michael Keaton's comeback, this bunch of hot air isn't as good as you may have heard;  fancy camera work can't entirely hide a hackneyed script...

by Don Stradley

Just as Black Swan used the ballet as a backdrop for a heavy-handed story about a performer having a nervous breakdown, Birdman uses the theater. The movie exists in a time and place that seems vaguely like our own, but its characters rarely leave a dank series of backstage dressing rooms, and when they do, it's to a local bar where a NY Times theater critics sits menacingly in a corner booth. The few times we see anything else, it's usually a shot of a frighteningly enormous crowd of tourists milling around in Times Square, or a bum shouting lines from Faulkner at the top of his lungs. Young characters talk about Twitter; older characters drink a lot.

The hero of Birdman is Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a burned out actor who once played a popular superhero called The Birdman. Desperate to resurrect his career and be taken seriously, he mounts a Broadway production based on the rather bleak stories of Raymond Carver. The movie doesn't touch on the fact that  Broadway producers would never touch Carver, but  that's a story for another time. As opening night approaches, Riggan has a sort of meltdown; he hears a voice in his head that tells him he's a loser, and he shows signs that he may actually have superhero powers, including the ability to move things by pointing his finger at them. He's had a hard life, was not the best husband or father, and has put too much pressure on himself to succeed in this production. Cracks are beginning to show.

His production is breaking down, too. One of the actors is taken out by a falling Leko light, and the replacement is troublesome Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), an annoying method actor who challenges Riggan, accuses him of being a phony. When the Times interviews Shiner during press week, Shiner uses a story told by Riggan as his own. As Riggan's life becomes easy fodder for others, there's nothing left for him, except his old Birdman character who begins to appear in his hallucinations.

He's also trying to patch things up with his druggie daughter (Emma Stone), and his ex-wife (Amy Ryan), and he wants to keep his current girlfriend happy, too. It's all a bit much, for him and us.

The movie feels like a throwback to films like Being John Malcovich, or some of the early work of Terry Gilliam, and it shares the same strategy of throwing in unexpected plot twists, never letting the audience feel comfortable. It's the three card monte school of movie making.

The difference between those other films and this one created by director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, is that those earlier titles were content to  be weird and amusing. The Birdman screenplay, written by Inarritu and three others, tries for depth. The movie is lousy with dialog about art versus celebrity, and artists versus critics, and there are plenty of half-baked comments about our society's fascination with social media. There's even a scene where Emma Stone, looking anorexic and bug-eyed, berates her father for not having a Facebook page. As I listened to her tirade, I wasn't sure whose side I was supposed to be on, or if the scene was supposed to be funny.

I also couldn't figure out why it took four people to write the story, unless each writer had to be replaced once he ran out of hot air.

Keaton, looking weather beaten and vulnerable, gives the sort of performance that may win him some awards. This is partly because his own career included a turn as a comic book hero, and some people love that cutesy-poo meta shit. Mostly, it's because he's willing to work without a wig. Norton is good here, too, maybe even better than Keaton. Norton has to make sense of lines like, "I'd like to pull your eyes out of your head and put them in my head so I can see the world the way I did when I was your age." The line stinks of freshman year writers' workshop nonsense, but he managed to spit it out like a pro.

Ultimately, the good performances, the dizzying camera work, incessant drum soundtrack, and characters grousing about art versus commerce isn't enough to hide the banal script. This sophomoric screenplay actually includes a scene where two characters play a game of 'truth or dare', and that's how we learn about them. Such a goofy scene wouldn't even make the cut on the Lifetime network. Or for that matter, a comic book.

No comments:

Post a Comment