Thursday, October 23, 2014

'Birdman' tries to ruffle lots of feathers

A vibrantly presented world, but what's there to care about?.
If you've been following this year's film festival news, you know that director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman -- or more pretentiously Birdman: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance -- has taken flight in critical circles.

Michael Keaton, who hasn't occupied center stage in a movie for a while, has received raves for portraying a washed-up movie star trying to make a comeback on Broadway.

And even those who've objected to Inarritu's cacophonous, multi-story approach in 21 Grams and Babel seem to regard Birdman as a striking improvement.

I begin this way because Birdman arrives with a cache that proclaims the film a brilliant riff on celebrity, movies, stardom and heaven knows what else.

Obviously, I wouldn't have mentioned any of this unless I intended to take a different -- and less effusive -- tack.

Creative, willing to plunge into fantasy without apology or explanation and sharply acted, Birdman resembles, as someone has pointed out, a high-wire act -- except (and here's the rub) the wire might be located no more than two feet off the ground.

Put another way, Birdman has its virtues, but revovles around a less-than-riveting question: Can a movie star we don't particuarly like and with whom we may not identify earn a reputation as a credible actor?

Keaton portrays Riggan Thomas an actor who made his mark playing a superhero called Birdman. Thomas ditched the franchise, but eventually fell into hard times. Now, his money and self-respect are running out.

To redeem his reputation, Riggan has written a play, an adpation of a Raymond Carver story called What We Talk About When We Talk abokut Love. What rides on the play's success? For Riggan: Everything. For us? Much less.

Keaton does a fine job playing a man who's plummeting even as he's trying to take flight. Riggan is tormented by the blatant commericalism of his past success; his box-office triumphs drag on him like an anchor.

But even in a comedy this caustic, it would be nice to give a damn about whether Riggan saved himself or not. I can't say that I did.

Riggan fights an internal battle, even as he faces various obstacles that threaten his play. He often hears the voice of his Birdman character, either berating him for his failures or reminding him that he could (and should) reclaim his place as a bona fide movie star who doesn't need the pipsqueak acclaim of the New York theater crowd.

Working with the gifted cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity and The Tree of Life), Inarritu employs a ferociously mobile camera as he attempts to make it seem as if the entire story is unfolding in a single take, an approach that's augmented by Antonio Sanchez's solo drum score. It's a feat of sorts, but put to what end?

OK, so Keaton played Batman, and stopped playing Batman. For some, this shard of show-business reality adds resonance to Inarritu's movie, but I can't imagine anyone confusing Keaton with the character he's playing.

Most of the story takes place in the tumultuous days before the play's opening: Among Riggan's problems: A cast member has been struck on the head by a stage light that detached from its moorings.

Riggan, who's both starring in and directing the play, hires a replacement, an apparently well-regarded theatrical actor (Edward Norton), a performer whose attempts to find realism in everything he plays reaches ludicrous levels.

Norton finds comedy in the self-inflation of a talented actor who believes that he's fighting a lonely battle to save the culture.

Also along for what's mostly a backstage ride is Riggan's daughter (Emma Stone). She's fresh from rehab and almost always in couldn't-care-less mode.

Stone has a power moment when her character tells her father that nothing about him matters, and he'd best get used to it. Stone then shows us -- as anger drains from her face -- that she realizes she may have gone too far.

We also meet an actress who's finally realizing her dream of appearing on Broadway (Naomi Watts).Zach Galifianakis plays Riggan's attorney and principal advisor, a mostly exasperated fellow who's constantly trying to save Riggan from himself.

Low-grade contempt runs through the entire movie -- for Hollywood and its blockbuster lust, for actors who either are portrayed as deeply insecure or phenomenal twits and for the audience, which is left to ponder the meaning of realistically presented images in which Riggan moves objects with his mind. Power fantasies from a man who seems to control nothing?

The screenplay tosses in some additional characters, notably Thomas' former wife (Amy Ryan) and his actress girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough). Early on, she tells Riggan that she's pregnant, the last bit of news someone in his precarious position needs to hear.

Much of the movie is marked by scorn, but Inarritu really forces his point when we meet the drama critic for The New York Times (Lindsay Duncan). She insists that she's going to destroy the play, even though she hasn't seen it.

Why? Because she detests everything that Riggan stands for; i.e., Hollywood commercialism. Even in a movie with satirical aspirations, it's just another cheap shot.

Look, Inarritu's clearly trying to push his movie out of the usual big-screen comfort zones. But I found Birdman to be marching to a drumbeat of self-absorption, and for all of its agitated craft, it's not without dull spots.

Birdman is about the ways in which artists risk everything and bystanders (and critics) risk nothing. With all humility, I'd say that real risk takers don't feel the need to point out that they're laying everything on the line. They just do it.

You can spend a lot of time deconstructing Birdman, but you may find that once you've done with the exercise, you haven't arrived anywhere that deeply matters.

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