Friday, November 28, 2014

BIRDMAN Is Strange, Ambitious, Doesn't Quite Hit Its Mark

 BIRDMAN Review:

- I really, really wanted to love BIRDMAN. From the trailers, I pre-fell in love with the concept of Michael Keaton as a former cinematic superhero star who was now grappling with a showbiz career on the decline, all while being haunted by the ghosts of his past triumphs. The meta-heavy setup was intriguing, and Keaton is an actor who has been underutilized in recent years. BIRDMAN seemed to have all the ingredients to be something special. After seeing it though, I don't know. I recognize that some will love the movie's twisty, unique narrative style. And Keaton *is* pretty amazing in this role, playing an exaggerated version of himself with all kinds of charisma and self-effacing humor. But director Alejandro González Iñárritu's offbeat vision never quite gels into something that 100% works. I was impressed by the film's ambition, but never fully got what it was trying to say. Ultimately, the film's message, I think, is muddled by Inarritu's drive to be clever.

In the film, Keaton plays Riggan, a middle-aged actor who once starred in the much-loved superhero franchise Birdman. Riggan famously turned down the opportunity to make another Birdman film (just as Keaton, in real life turned down the chance to do a third Batman movie), and he's now writing and producing and starring in a play that, he's hoping, will reestablish his artistic cred and finally help him move beyond Birdman. And yet, Birdman haunts him. Riggan has strange visions of the superhero he once played - visions that egg him on and try to convince him that he *is* Birdman, and that, by-god, he should embrace it. Riggan tries to put his past behind him, but part of him insists that Birdman is not only something to be proud of, but an innate part of his being that makes him a real-life, no-joke superhero. 

Here's the thing though: the whole Birdman aspect of the film - this nagging part of Riggan's psyche that just won't die - is the most interesting part of the film. But Inarritu downplays it - having Birdman appear only sporadically, and with little consequence. Inarritu never seems quite sure where he wants to go with the whole Birdman thing, and so the nature of Riggan's hallucinations (or are they ...?) are never fully addressed or resolved in a satisfying manner. What Inarritu seems much more interested in is the play that Riggan is producing. And so BIRDMAN becomes, ultimately, much more about the theater than it is anything else. The director shoots the movie in a way that makes it seem like we're watching one long, uninterrupted take. It seems that what Inarritu is really interested in is capturing the experience of theater. But the play-within-the-movie of Birdman is, sadly, only mildly interesting.

What is interesting is the eclectic cast of characters that populate Riggan's production. Though not actually a cast member of the play, the show-stealer of the film is Emma Stone, as Riggan's daughter, Sam. Stone has a couple of real barnburner moments in the movie, including an absolutely fantastic monologue in the film's first act that is perhaps the best thing she's ever done as an actress. As good as Keaton is here, my number-one takeaway from BIRDMAN was: hot damn, Emma Stone *kills* it in this one. Sam is a girl who has gone through the obvious trauma of having a barely-present movie-star dad, but who is also a walking reality-check for Riggan - never afraid to tear him a new one when needed. She does act out though - and that includes striking up a cringeworthy relationship with the hot-shot star of her dad's play, the much-older Mike (Edward Norton). Norton is also really good here, and also playing a sort of self-parody character. Mike plays off Norton's rep as a self-involved would-be intellectual who tends to try to exert creative control over his projects. And indeed, Mike quickly has a lot of changes he wants to make to Riggan's play. Naomi Watts also appears as Mike's wife - also an actor in Riggan's production. Watts is always great, though her character here feels a little hot and cold and perhaps underwritten.

As for Keaton - he really is excellent here. He's such a naturally funny and charismatic actor, and BIRDMAN lets him show the full range of his talent. I especially loved the scenes where the Birdman persona takes over and Keaton goes full-psycho. I only wish that there was more of a real narrative drive to those scenes, and that they added up to something more than a collection of showcase-pieces for Keaton. But yes, all that aside, BIRDMAN is a great reminder that Keaton is not just good, but great. This is a guy who should be doing Oscar-worthy films. He sinks his teeth into this part, and seems to relish the fact that his character is seemingly inspired by his actual career. Clearly, there's something cathartic for Keaton in playing a role like this, and that comes out in the sheer power, humor, and commitment on display here.

But ultimately, what does it all mean? BIRDMAN squanders a couple of opportunities to at least end with an exclamation point, and instead keeps going past its ideal end-point, concluding on a whimper rather than a bang. The film's dizzying, one-take visual style deserves major kudos for originality and ambition, but it too, seems just a bit gimmicky. I struggled to find a real thematic reason for that style to be used. Just as I struggled to find real meaning in the use of Birdman as a recurring motif and as an actual character that would appear to Keaton in the film. It's a shame, because you sense that there's a truly great film buried beneath the rubble here that is close to getting out. But I'm not sure that Iñárritu is able to get to the real core of the story he wants to tell here, or to find the exact right tonal balance between humor, introspection, and weirdness. Keaton, Stone, and Norton do some absolutely great work in this one, and it's worth seeing for them, and to see a movie that is juggling some really interesting themes, and that's striving for something original and thought-provoking. But there's an uncertainty to this film that keeps it from hitting its mark. Credit it though for swinging for the fences.

My Grade: B

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