Film Review: BIRDMAN, (2014), DIR. ALEJANDRO GONZALEZ IÑÁRRITU
Image Above: Michael Keaton as "Riggan" in BIRDMAN. (Picture from official site)
This film is a loopy, trippy, schizoid, hallucinatory tale of two pitched battles for survival between egomaniacal opposites. The character of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), probably not coincidentally, playing a character much like the actor portraying him is the core. Riggan, who became rich and famous portraying an action hero called Birdman in a hugely popular three-film franchise, turned down the offer of a third sequel, hoping to move on to more serious roles and more meaningful work. His fans were devastated.
The work did not materialize and he has dropped into semi-obscurity for over a decade. Adding insult to injury is the fact that his Birdman success did not translate into any semblance of success in his personal life. He is divorced from his wife, estranged from his daughter, who has been struggling with drug addiction and rehab for years and he is wracked with an all-consuming artistic angst and insecurity. Add to this the fact that he is constantly haunted and taunted by the voice of his former film persona, Birdman, trying to reassert itself by reminding him of the perks of his old life and belittling his current state as a relative has-been. Here’s where it gets weird - Riggan talks back to the Birdman voice and argues with it. Under the infuence of his Birdman alter ego he performs supernatural feats - like flying, causing things to move or explode - slipping into some sort of hypermania which reminded me of the film of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch with it’s hallucinatory flashbacks.
The film opens with Riggan in the drab dressing room of the Broadway theatre where he is waiting to go onstage for the dress rehearsal of his planned comeback. This is a really risky longshot and one on which he has bet the ranch and invested all of his money. He has chosen to direct and star in his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. It is a difficult, rigorous piece of theatre on any level. But as an undertaking for a Riggan Thomson comeback it seems like the height of artistic everreach.
During the dress rehearsal he realizes his male co-star is a total disaster and fires him by making something fall on his head and injuring him. Then with no co-star and no time to find one, his female co-star, Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggests MIke Shiner (Edward Norton), who happens to be her boyfriend, and has a great deal of theatre box office draw. He is available and seems like a godsend. Unfortunately, he turns into almost as much of a nightmare as Riggan’s Birdman voices. He is an insufferably arrogant method actor who refuses to be directed with the most over-the-top rebellious behavior. Thus, adding another adversary to Riggan’s desperate struggle to restart his career and establish his relevance. He is every bit as daunting as the Birdman avatar in his will to sabotage Riggan’s success.
This is merely the setup for the action which follows to see who is the last man standing. It is a roller coaster ride filmed in extended uninterrupted takes by Emmanuel Lubezki and follows Riggan down the theatre corridors and out into the streets wearing only his underwear accompanied by a percussion background which is used to great effect throughout. The battle of egos and alter egos is fast and furious and the flights of fantasy are both violent and magical. The supporting cast which includes Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter, are all terrific. It is anything but boring, somewhat confounding, totally entertaining and ultimately satisfying. The perfect, yet unexpected, ending leaves the notion of reality still up in the air - as it should be.
Michael Keaton on the set of BIRDMAN. Photo by Alison Rosa. (Picture from official site)