Film - Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)


Michael Keaton is Bat... er... Birdman.  The superhero that is Chris Smith tells you why the film is a must see...

Birdman is unlikely to be based solely on Michael Keaton's career but the similarities between the two means the 63 year old can bring a sincerity to the role few others could have. Despite appearing in dozens of successful movies to many, Keaton will always be best known for portraying the Caped Crusader in Tim Burton's 1989 blockbuster, Batman. It is a role that has arguably both shaped and overshadowed his career.

In Birdman, Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor who made his name in the hugely successful, eponymous superhero franchise . It is a role that he has never been able to move on from. In an attempt at reinvention, Riggan has adapted American writer, Raymond Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love", in which he also directs and acts in. Riggan has a talented cast in girlfriend Laura (Riseborough); Lesley (Watts), who's appearing on Broadway for the first time, and Ralph (Shamos). When Ralph is injured by a falling spotlight, he is replaced by Mike (Norton) – an intense and popular actor who elevates the play's profile. All of this is held together by the play's producer and Riggan's best friend, Jake (Galifianakis)

In the run-up to opening night, rehearsals lurch from bad to worse as Mike exhibits disruptive behaviour and Riggan beings to run out of money. His relationship with his estranged, former-drug addict daughter, Sam (Stone) becomes increasingly frayed and when it becomes clear a theatre critic is out to destroy the play, Riggan realises everything is slipping away from him.

Many films have used the theatre as a setting but few have been able to convey what happens behind the curtain as well as Birdman does. Alejandro González Iñárritu's direction is sublime. Long, single takes and handheld cameras follow each character as they move around the theatre, pulling the audience into the scenes like voyeurs or a documentary crew. These single takes result in scenes that blend seamlessly into one another perfectly. Scene transitions are so fluid, they emulate those of the Broadway plays Riggan and his cast are performing. When Riggan or Mike leave the theatre to walk to a bar or Riggan runs through Times Square in his underpants, the set grows to encompass the city of New York, all with the audience running to keep up.

Birdman and Riggan

There is no moment in Birdman not devoted to developing the plot or the characters and their relationships with one another in some way. The film's humour is genuine and heart-felt. Each of the cast gives sincere, gusty performances and every single one of them is at the top of their game. Keaton's Riggan is a lost man whose biggest parts are in the past and whose future is uncertain. He has made mistakes. He was an absentee father, a lousy husband and a celebrity whose star has faded. He will need to address all of these is he – and his play – are to have any chance of succeeding.

The advertising of Birdman has made much of Riggan's supposed “superpowers”. While Riggan's play does take place with successful superhero films running in the background, Birdman is not about a superhero. Whether Riggan actually has these powers is a matter of debate and interpretation as will be the ending. Is Riggan someone in possession of fantastic abilities or a fantasist? Is he Clark Kent or a man whose sanity has been eroded by his time in the spotlight?

There is an astonishing honesty in Birdman, honesty about the difficulties in dealing with declining fame and the transition from cinema to theatre. The statements it makes about both are not profound or earth-shattering. Birdman is not a commentary on either but Keaton and Iñárritu have comments to make. Those films that try to make similar comments often quickly become self-absorbed parodies and while yes, Birdman does straddle that fine line at numerous times, it holds itself together well, pulling back from the edge before going all of the way over.

There is also anger and vulnerability in this film and both come from a very personal place. While Birdman is not based on a true story, it will ring true for many actors who are perhaps trying to recapture some of their former glory. When Riggan vents at a critic he does so with such vitriol and scorn that even if the words have not been spoken before they have certainly been thought and felt. Considering the need for actors to draw upon deeply personal and emotional experiences for their art, Birdman's most arresting quality is that in it, we might finally be hearing the actors speak and not their characters. While Keaton is not Riggan and vice versa, the energy passion he infuses this ageing, washing-up actor with blends life and art to produce a truly compelling character.

Cinema is often derided by some in the theatre as a lowbrow, uncouth form of entertainment and certainly when looking at the inexplicable and seemingly unstopping box office success of a stream of vulgar comedies or mindless action films, one may concede the detractors have a point. Through Keaton, Watts, Stone, Norton and Galifianakis and their director, Birdman pushes back against them in a potent, humorous and passionate piece of cinema that can hold its head up high.

Image - Amazon and Fox Searchlight

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