Featuring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianikis, Lindsay Duncan
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Screenwriters: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Movie website: www.birdmanthemovie.com/
Australian release date: Thu 15 Jan, 2015
(Advance screenings: Luna, Fri 9 Jan – Sun 11 Jan)
Verdict: A brilliantly directed and performed comedic nightmare excursion into the psyche of an actor in meltdown, and the mayhem and anxiety that is part and parcel of theatrical productions as the clock ticks down to opening night.
Once famous for playing movie superhero Birdman, ageing Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is seeking to revive his flagging career and gain some artistic cred by staging his adaptation of a Raymond Carver play on Broadway.
Riggan’s ambitious project is beset with problems. His neurotic manager (Zach Galifianikis) is close to a crack-up, and more hindrance than help. Upping the tension, a cast member is injured, and with opening night approaching Riggan has no option but to replace him with temperamental, headstrong method actor Mike (Edward Norton) whose narcissism is out of control. While this talented spotlight-bogarting bighead brings edge to the play, there is the ever-present danger that he will push it over the brim.
The two female co-stars are also a worry: one is Riggan’s loose cannon girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), the other (Naomi Watts) a très sensitive and vulnerable Broadway debutante who must be handled with care. But Riggan’s woman trouble doesn’t end there. Out of parental obligation he has hired his troubled daughter Sam (Emma Stone) as an assistant. Just out of rehab, she is a resentful and distracting presence. Worse, New York’s most powerful theatre critic, fearsome nutcracker Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), is gunning for him, outraged that a trashy Hollywood action star should dare presume he has anything to offer Broadway.
However, Riggan’s self-image is perhaps his greatest obstacle to success in his new stage career. He is shackled to the Birdman character, whose taunting voice is always in his ear, reinforcing his self-doubt and urging him to return to his superhero role. When his esteem is at its lowest following a mauling in a bar from Tabitha Dickinson, the Birdman character manifests itself accompanied by Hollywood comic-hero explosions and other big-action dramatic effects that mock Riggan’s current quest for artistic credibility.
Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu draws on Riggan’s inner chaos and that of the backstage theatre world in fashioning the film, creating a fascinating tonal weirdness by combining elements that should not work together, but mostly do. In the opening scene, for example, Riggan is in his dressing room, levitating cross-legged a metre above the floor in his underwear (not a good look, regardless of the apparent magic and mysticism afoot). The image is open to multiple interpretations. Are we in for a fantasy trip, a dose of magic realism, an externalising of Riggan’s inner imaginings/delusions, a pisstake? Yes, yes, yes and yes…maybe.
And so it goes throughout the film as Iñárritu lets loose, giving his considerable powers full reign. Using extended one-take shots, he stalks Riggan on his comedic nightmare excursion into the mad, volatile, frenetic, frightening mayhem of his newly adopted theatre milieu as the clock ticks down to opening night. Against a backdrop of personal and professional crises, rehearsals teeter on the balance, as last-minute script and interpretative changes force the play and its players into a painful and confronting metamorphosis, and the wild-riding cinematography expresses this.
This is virtuoso filmmaking, no less, and on one level it is deadly serious in its intent, but there is nothing precious about it; there is always an undercurrent of irony, of black humour. In the most memorable scene of the film, for instance, a near-naked Riggan accidentally locks himself on the wrong side of a side-exit and has no choice but to run through the crowded streets of Broadway to the main entrance of the theatre. It’s a funny sequence, yet sobering in its figurative allusion to Riggan’s past and present career, and to the self-exposing and sacrificing – and potentially humiliating – nature of acting itself.
Michael Keaton will be acclaimed for this performance, and deservedly so. He is in lockstep with Iñárritu’s direction; these guys were made for each other, and for this film. Other than Keaton, Norton and Stone are the standouts, but all the performers hit the right notes, which is no mean feat in a work of this complexity and tonal ambivalence.
Unfortunately, there are some wobbles approaching the finish line. The ending works, yet is disappointing at the same time. Perhaps Iñárritu is a victim of his own brilliance, setting up the expectation that he will demand his screenwriters pull something special out of the hat, yet accepting only a rabbit.
This is the smallest of gripes – Birdman is no bunny. It’s a complex, highly disciplined yet free-flying fn dizzbuster of a film that should be seen on the big screen. Opens 15 January. Mark the date.
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