Friday, October 31, 2014

Birdman: A dark comedy that soars

Birdman (2014) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated R, for relentless profanity, sexual candor and brief violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.31.14

This isn’t merely a movie; it’s a bravura display of cinematic pizzazz as mesmerizing as its three starring performances.

This one demands repeat viewing. First time out, you’ll be overwhelmed by the stylistic approach — dazzlingly so, to the point of wanting to applaud — and then you’ll need a second round to better appreciate everything else going on.

When Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton, left) learns that co-star Mike Shiner (Edward
Norton) has hijacked some of his best personal material for a lavish newspaper interview,
raw fury propels the two men into the sort of laughably flimsy fist-fight that one would
expect from two guys who haven't the faintest idea how to throw a punch.
We’ve never seen anything quite like this.

Granted, director/co-scripter Alejandro González Iñárritu borrows respectfully from predecessors going all the way back to Robert Wiene (1920’s silent The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), with strong nods toward Alfred Hitchcock (1948’s Rope), Roman Polanski (1965’s Repulsion) and Paddy Chayefsky (1976’s Network).

Much more recently, Joe Wright attempted similar cinematographic trickery with 2012’s Anna Karenina, but with far less success; the stage-bound stylization called too much attention to itself, at the expense of the story.

But that, too, is the genius of Iñárritu’s Birdman: The audacious approach is part of the story, indeed the throbbing heartbeat of an exhilarating descent into artistic madness, whose pulse is amplified by a score devoted solely to Grammy Award-winner Antonio Sanchez’s percussive drumming.

That latter affectation is jarring at first, particularly as Sanchez’s efforts become pervasive, his shifting tempos altering the story’s rhythm and pace in a manner normally handled by cutting wizardry. But editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione seemingly have very little to do in this film, because cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s brilliantly composed scenes are — like our central character’s relentless fever dream — one long tracking shot.

Yep. For 119 minutes. Over the course of this narrative’s roughly three days and nights.

Not entirely true, of course, which is why that word — seemingly — is so crucial. Despite having the appearance of a single extended take, Iñárritu, Lubezki, Crise and Mirrione collaborate quite cleverly to convey this illusion ... just as everything that happens on a Broadway stage is pure artifice.

Except when it isn’t, which is the whole point here. Even before we dive into his rapidly unraveling psyche, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) has lost the ability to separate his actual life from what takes place on stage; his performer’s artifice may be the only thing helping him cling to whatever remains of his sanity. Indeed, how many actors, stretching back centuries, have insisted that they only come alive each night, when they hit their marks ... their vivid, full-color nighttime dreams far more real to them than the washed-out black-and-white of their actual lives?

But Iñárritu and co-scripters Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo aren’t content with that familiar cliché. Thomson’s performance anxiety is heightened further by the full-frontal dive into meta-reality represented by Keaton’s casting. Thomson is a washed-up, long-dormant Hollywood celebrity once famed for a series of superhero films — the Birdman trilogy — who has mounted an ambitious Broadway play as a means of (he hopes) reviving his moribund career.

Similarly, the woefully under-appreciated Keaton has lost all the momentum generated by his pair of Batman films more than two decades ago. By the late 1990s, he was essentially washed up, relegated to mind-numbingly awful flicks such as Jack Frost (dead dad returns as a snowman???) and Herbie Fully Loaded, Lindsay Lohan’s entry in Disney’s sentient Volkswagen comedies.

Few actors would be brave enough to admit such professional failings with the unapologetic verve demanded by this new film ... but Keaton plunges into these self-referential waters with belligerent gusto. His reward, for this fearless and foolish act: a death-defying performance guaranteed to re-ignite his career in precisely the manner this story’s Thomson hopes will happen to him. Do I hear Oscar calling?

As is typical of Tinseltown icons who stage such audacious assaults on The Great White Way, Thomson has chosen to direct and star in his own adaptation of an obscure short story — “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” — by noted 20th century author Raymond Carver. Aside from the dedicated members of the cast assembled for this production, the endeavor is viewed by the wider world with amusement at best, outright hostility at worst.

Regarding the latter, nobody gets in a better jab than Lindsay Duncan, in a brief appearance as Broadway theater critic Tabitha Dickinson, a vengefully nasty, self-appointed arbiter of “quality” who is equal parts real-world New York magazine theater critic John Simon, and George Sanders’ tart-tongued Addison DeWitt, in 1950’s All About Eve.

Thomson and Dickinson have a breathtakingly nasty face-off as this story approaches its third act: a confrontation that bespeaks a deliciously shrewd understanding of Hollywood and Broadway by Iñárritu and his co-scripters. But this exchange is merely one of many highlights in a dark-dark-dark comedy laden with both zingers and perceptive jabs at everything from actor vanity to the self-absorbed senselessness of a contemporary society that values narcissistic, social media twaddle over events of real-world consequence, and of delusional cretins who believe they have the right to become famous right now, thanks to Facebook and Twitter followers, rather than by virtue of having built a body of work over years and decades.

Mere words cannot express the vibrant, medium-bending technique and talent on display in this film.

Thomson’s play is a four-hander; he has taken the key male role opposite the voluptuous Laura (Andrea Riseborough), also his current girlfriend, and insecure lead actress Lesley (Naomi Watts), nervous about her own Broadway debut. Down to the final rehearsals, with opening night only a few days away, a freak stage accident injures Thomson’s talentless male co-star, Ralph (Jeremy Shamos), badly enough to take him out of action.

Not an accident, Thomson quietly insists to best friend and producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), for our increasingly jumpy protagonist believes that he possesses telekinetic powers that grant him the ability to move objects by mere thought. Additionally, when in the isolation of his dressing room, he also carries on conversations with the costumed alter ego who made him famous years ago, and now derisively insists that Thomson should abandon this foolish Broadway venture and accept a long-standing offer to make Birdman 4.

Believing they’re well rid of Ralph, Thomson impulsively accepts Lesley’s suggestion to contact her current lover, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). On the one hand, Shiner is a much-admired stage icon guaranteed to sell tickets; on the other hand, he’s an unpredictable loose cannon who embraces every role with the sort of “method” intensity that is ripe for Iñárritu’s caustic satire.

Shiner is just as aggressively self-absorbed as Thomson, albeit in an entirely different way. For all his failings, Thomson remains a sympathetic character: a guy struggling to hold himself together long enough to reap at least some reward from a last-ditch gambit. Shiner, in stark contrast, is a condescending jerk who Knows Best and never hesitates to make a point, even if it means ruining a ticketed dress rehearsal.

(Just in passing, is there anything more ridiculous than charging admission, even at a discount, so that members of the public can witness a play still in the final throes of assembly? It strikes me that people who attend such performances are akin to the ghouls who watch NASCAR in the hopes of witnessing a fatal wreck ... a comparison that seems equally apt in this theater context.)

And, as if this weren’t enough of a combustible brew, the angst-y intensity is heightened even further by the presence of Thomson’s foul-mouthed, fresh-from-rehab daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), serving as his personal assistant. Laden with her own issues, alternately furious with and fearful for the father she believes wasn’t around enough during her formative years, Sam hides behind her own mask of dark eye shadow, which does little to obscure the unsettling intensity of her stare.

Given the surfeit of identity issues running riot through this lunatic asylum disguised as a Broadway stage play, can it be any accident that the theater across the street has mounted a production of Phantom of the Opera, its signature masked poster frequently caught by Lubezki’s roving tracking shots?

Keaton’s performance is galvanic, incandescent and breathtaking. He rarely speaks his dialogue, preferring instead to hurl lines with a feral snarl that never quite conceals the terror licking at Thomson’s soul. Keaton always has been known for the lightning-swift speed at which his expressions can change, and Iñárritu makes the most of that gift.

Norton also is raw, frequently uncontrolled fury ... except when Shiner is being “instructive” in that oh-so-blatantly patient manner of a tut-tutting adult correcting an uncomprehending child. At those moments, Norton is even more hilariously annoying.

Stone and Norton enjoy several rooftop confessional scenes that are both sharply observed and uneasily intimate in a way that feels ... dangerous. Elsewhere, Thomson and Sam share a father/daughter dust-up that grants Stone a spectacular tirade: one that emerges with such wrath that the actress herself seems surprised by its intensity, in the subsequent pin-drop silence ... just as Sam is immediately chagrined by what her words have done to her father.

More meta. Sheer, impudent brilliance.

Amy Ryan establishes a sympathetic presence as Thomson’s warmly supportive ex-wife, Sylvia, who somehow pops up just when he needs her. The usually manic Galifianakis plays against type as this saga’s rare “normal” individual: a pragmatist clinging for life amid a bevy of fruit bats.

Most comedies are lucky to achieve this script’s rat-a-tat ferocity for a few choice scenes; Iñárritu and his fellow scribes maintain that intensity for damn near the entire film, with a dark anger that echoes what Chayefsky did in Network. That’s no small thing, and Birdman is no small film. It’s a dazzling statement of our times: a scathing, penetrating indictment of human existence, cloaked in the artifice of a play within a movie within ... something else.

Nor is it anything like what the film’s cleverly deceptive trailer suggests, so don’t make dismissive assumptions based on that preview. You don’t want to miss this one ... even though, yes, it’s aggressively, unapologetically weird. And uncomfortable.

And memorable.

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