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Birdman Review

By Lora Grady


If you're going to see "Birdman" you may want to think ahead a little, because you're likely to walk out of the theater already aware that you're going to have to see it again.  There is so much going on in director Alejandro Iñárritu's new movie that trying take it all in during a single viewing seems impossible.  There's star Michael Keaton's incandescent performance as Riggan Thomson, an over the hill Hollywood action star who's making a bid to rehab his artistic credibility by mounting a Broadway production of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love".  There's Edward Norton as theater savant Mike Shiner, who joins the show last minute and tears through it like an unwieldy Prometheus bringing unexpected fire to Riggan's creation.  There is clever mirroring of the action onstage with comparable, complicated offstage relationships.  There's ongoing commentary about the tensions among the creation, observation, and consumption of art, and questions of artistic integrity versus commercial success.  And throughout, there's the idea of motion and flight as a metaphor for self-expression and growth, expressed via boundlessly creative, gorgeously kinetic cinematography.

On the surface, the story of "Birdman" is fairly straightforward: Riggan's adaptation of Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" is going into previews on Broadway.  He's sunk the remains of his Hollywood fortune, earned by playing soaring superhero 'Birdman' from initial blockbuster success through a downward spiral of franchise sequels, into the production.  He's also staked his internal and external artistic identity on the outcome of this gamble.  In fact, Riggan is undergoing a sort of identity crisis: as opening day nears we see him struggling to either integrate or reject his 'Birdman' identity.  He holds dialogues with his alter-ego.  He plays with the idea of unleashing superpowers in the immediate environment of his dressing room and backstage.  The fact that Riggan's Birdman-self speaks to him in a gravelly, Batman-esque voice is one of several meta elements in the film that comment on Hollywood's current obsession with superhero franchises.  There's also talk about the stampede of credible actors who have rushed to join the trend, including a roll-call of performers - Michael Fassbender, Jeremy Renner - who aren't available to take second billing in Riggan's show because they're tied up making big comic book movies.  Naturally, this reveal plays out against an "Entertainment Tonight" style story on Robert Downey Jr.'s lucrative "Iron Man" turn that blares from a nearby tv.

As he works to get the show on its feet, Riggan is also struggling to repair his relationship with daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who's recently out of rehab and working as his assistant.  At the same time he's got his actress girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) monologuing onstage about an unwanted baby and telling him offstage that she's pregnant, and his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) dropping by unexpectedly to check up on him.  The addition of passionate stage actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) to the mix is almost too much; he comes in as a last-minute addition and riles everyone with his virtually sociopathic commitment to artistic integrity.  Mike inspires Riggan: any actor, would-be actor, or aspirant who's been lucky enough to be struck by this particular form of lightning will recognize the spark that flies between the two as they hurtle through their first reading of a scene that had been falling flat due to the inept performance of Mike's predecessor.  But he's also a wild card as he melts down onstage, insists on realism to the point of absurdity in his performances, steals Riggan's press spotlight, and crosses the line with Sam.

Riggan's proverbial last straw comes in a vitriolic encounter with a theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) who embodies all of the actor's fears about making the leap from Hollywood has-been to respected performer.  Their exchange anchors the film's exploration of the relationship between those who produce art and those who consume it - and those who make pronouncements about it. Without giving anything away, it's safe to say that the questions about integrating the artist's ego and internalizing vs. externalizing the artistic experience are further explored, and viewers can expect some dark soul-searching that's well buoyed by laugh out loud moments of sheer farce, including an exhilaratingly funny take on the idea of acting as a form of public exposure.

"Birdman" won't appeal to everyone.  It's peppered with stagey monologues and occasionally strays into self-indulgence.  Its rhythms seem to be leading up to a payoff that never really arrives - but then again, you can probably say that about life in general.  Some people will undoubtedly feel bewildered, frustrated, or just plain let down by the film's quiet, inconclusive ending.  But "Birdman" gets many things right, starting with the long-overdue reminder of Michael Keaton's power and range as an actor; it's worth seeing the film just to witness his performance.  "Birdman" is also nails the theater experience, and backstage vets will appreciate the lengthy shots that track down narrow hallways, pan around cluttered dressing rooms, and linger in the darkness behind the scenes, then find the impossibly bright light that signals the freedom to be found on the other side of the proscenium arch.  See "Birdman" because it's challenging, funny, thought-provoking, maddening, and uplifting - then see it again, for all those very same reasons.

What did you think?

Movie title Birdman
Release year 2014
MPAA Rating R
Our rating
Summary Evocative, complex, and visually innovative, Alejandro Iñárritu's "Birdman" boosts Michael Keaton back to the heights of stardom and will likely require more than one viewing.
View all articles by Lora Grady
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