In Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Michael Keaton gives a performance that simultaneously works as a selling vehicle for the late short-story author Raymond Carver and conveys a certain surrealism against a backdrop of seedy reality. The film, directed as well as co-written by Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel) tells the story of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) who turned his back on a lucrative career in a film franchise about a feathered superhero. The underlying theme in the film deals with Riggan’s self obsession and his mental state is shown by the Birdman character talking to the actor when they are alone.
The movie starts with Riggan apparently levitating in his dressing room while Birdman is talking to him and asking how they got “here.” The dressing room is forlorn and dirty looking with a huge poster of the actor’s superhero character against one wall that the stage crew got Thomson as a gift. When the star’s lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) comes up to see him, Riggan asks to get rid of the thing and Jake tells him to leave it where it is or they will get into trouble with the union.
Michael Keaton’s character is a man on the edge who has put everything into this Broadway production and he has opted to adapt, star and direct the stage play based upon the Raymond Carver short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Birdman is all about one man stopping what he sees as selling out, in terms of Hollywood box office and getting back to the roots of acting, all the while showing a sort of seedy surrealism around New York and the theatre district. Pointing out the innate snobbery of theatre critics and the snobbery reserved for cinematic actors who dare to take to the stage.
It is also about a possibly delusionary man who was once a star. A performer who stepped away from a money making franchise to rediscover himself and what made him become an actor. The character of Riggan is eaten up with guilt about being a poor father – his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) has just left rehab – not deserving his success, being a bad husband and boyfriend. Thomson is only certain of one thing, he can do things with his mind, such as injuring the actor he feels is hurting his Broadway debut by causing a spotlight to drop on his head.
One of his two leading ladies, Lesley (played with a brilliant tortured air by Naomi Watts) suggests her live-in lover Michael Shriner, the darling of Broadway, as a replacement and initially Riggan is overjoyed. Shriner, as played by Edward Norton, is all ego, self aggrandizement and being a real star of the stage and who will do anything to be the center of attention. This film is impressive on all levels. In terms of performances everyone knocks it out of the park. Emma Stone gets a chance to be a combination of flakey insecurity and bolshy aggressiveness toward her father.
Naomi Watts proves once again that she can dominate the screen as a damned fine character actress with acting chops as impressive as her beauty. Edward Norton is outstanding as the replacement actor the audience can love to hate and Andrea Riseborough is another great English performer who makes each part she plays real and full of depth. It was also nice to see Zach Galifianakis returning to a slightly more serious, but funny, role.
Michael Keaton was the real treat in Birdman selling Raymond Carver and the seedy surrealism of both Broadway and the money making business that is Hollywood. In his scenes, the former Batman star looked worried, desperate and slightly off center. It will be nothing short of amazing if the man does not get an Oscar nod when award season rolls around. This film is an odd duck which will please critics and reviewers alike, but sadly, will most likely not bring in a lot of box office revenue for the filmmakers. Michael Caine once said that films about actors and acting never do well with audiences as the average person does not want to see performers “backstage” and the star is not too far wrong with that assessment. Birdman opens on November 7 in Las Vegas and other cinemas across the U.S. The film is different, absorbing and odd and it will not be to everyone’s taste.
By Michael Smith
Regal Village Square Theatre