Tuesday, November 11, 2014

'Birdman' Review: Look! Up in the Sky! It's ... uh, Well ... We're Not Entirely Sure But It Soars

Michael Keaton is haunted by his alter ego in "Birdman."
I am old enough to have seen Christopher Reeve's debut as Superman in 1978 in a theater on opening weekend. I attended a Saturday matinee with several college friends while nursing perhaps the worst hangover of my life following a fraternity party the night before.

What does this have to do with "Birdman"? Well, I recall that one of the taglines for "Superman" was "You'll believe a man can fly." In the case of Michael Keaton's latest film, a tagline for "Birdman" might be "You'll believe a man can ... um ... levitate? Fly? Move objects simply by pointing at them? Hear voices in his head?" All of these things? None of these things?

And therein lies some of the beauty behind a movie subtitled "The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance." Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has deftly crafted a film that offers its viewers their own alternative storylines. Is Keaton simply playing a washed-up actor looking for relevance? Or is he something more as he seemingly soars above the streets of New York City? Where is the real story taking place? You decide.

Yes, some mild spoilers are ahead.

And what does co-star Emma Stone see in the final scene as the camera focuses on her, smiling and wide-eyed, looking to the sky out of a hospital room window?

To be clear, I am being purposely unclear to avoid any major spoilers.

One thing I want readers to be clear about, though, is that "Birdman" is not a comic book movie. We see only glimpses of the costumed title character. The closest we get to a fight scene is Keaton, dressed in his underwear, rolling around on the floor with Edward Norton, who most definitely is not reprising his role as Bruce Banner from "The Incredible Hulk." "Birdman" is not for children, so hire a babysitter. Keaton drops F-bombs like a bird drops, well, you know. This is the darkest of comedies.

The plot, in short: Keaton plays actor Riggan Thomson, who twenty years earlier made a box office name for himself with the "Birdman" movie franchise. Since then, well, not so many people will pay money to see him perform. They do, however, stop him on the street and in bars to have their pictures taken with the onetime superhero. To revive his career, both artistically and financially, Riggan decides to write, direct and star on Broadway in an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love."

The obvious twist, of course, is that art is imitating life here. Keaton's own career, if you base it solely on box office, has never regained the superstar status of his days as Tim Burton's Batman. Stone has played Gwen Stacy in a pair of Spider-Man movies. Norton, as mentioned earlier, was the Hulk's alter ego and then snubbed for a reprisal for "The Avengers."

Emma Stone gives an award-worthy performance in "Birdman."
Keaton is torn not only by playing Thomson/Birdman, but by his professional roles as actor/director of what seems to be a doomed play and by his private roles as ex-husband (to Amy Ryan) and absent dad (to a rehabbing Stone). He juggles the parts magnificently, at one moment thrown into a rage by the voice in his head and the next trying to make amends with Stone.

All of the actors are terrific. Zach Galifianakis is the Thomson's lawyer and best friend, left to clean up the mess that seems to follow Keaton. In some ways, Norton as Broadway actor Mike Shiner is an even bigger jerk than Thomson. Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough add depth as two of the play's actresses caught up in the stormy wakes of Thomson and Norton.

Special mention goes to Stone, who already is being discussed for an award for her portrayal of Sam, trying desperately to get her own act together as Thomson's assistant while also attempting to connect with him as her dad. The scene where Stone lectures Keaton is among the film's highlights.

What does Sam see in that final scene? Judge for yourself.

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