Sunday, February 1, 2015

Oscars 2014: Birdman

Keaton and his doppelganger Birdman
Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (U.S., 2014) by Alejandro González Iñárritu119 minutes

Nine Oscars Nominations
Actor in a Leading Role (Michael Keaton)
Actor in a Supporting Role (Edward Norton)
Actress in a Supporting Role (Emma Stone)
Best Picture
Sound Editing
Sound Mixing
Writing (Original Screenplay)

The Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel) has taken an enormous risk with this film - it is strange and beautiful and mystifying and many will not like it I fear. But I liked it enormously.

The film stars Michael Keaton (Riggan) as a somewhat washed up film star who once played a spectacularly commercially popular superhero called Birdman some twenty years ago (obviously echoing Keaton’s own role as the first incarnation of Batman in 1989) - an iconic role that both catapulted him into fame but also appeared to hinder his respectability as a serious actor. Now he is trying to redeem himself as an artist by staging a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver's short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

Riggan is tortured by the voice and image of Birdman who criticizes his efforts. It acts as a sort of belittling inner voice. In moments of agitation, Riggan levitates, literally flies, and performs acts of telekinesis (or does he imagine this – this will confound the viewer). He is apt to destroy a room with his powers if incensed. 

The play is being produced by Riggan's lawyer and friend Jake (the appropriately neurotic Zach Galifianakis). Riggan is plagued with insecurities - not the least of which are being dramatically overshadowed by a respected, if volatile, method actor named Mike (Edward Norton) whom he has lured into the production through Lesley, his co-star (Naomi Watts); dealing with his girlfriend Laura (the British actress Andrea Riseborough) who stars in the same production; and his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), an acerbic, recovering teenage addict, who serves as his assistant. This fleshes out this formidable ensemble.

Keaton here is devoid of the nervous manic energy that accompanies most of his roles – he is deadly serious and eminently worthy of compassion whether he is dealing with the actorly rivalry with Mike, learning of a relationship between Mike and his daughter, combating a particularly vicious theatre critic who has sworn to shut down the production, or, accidentally locking himself out of the theatre and being forced to walk through Times Square in his underwear to get back into the theatre's front door.

The destructiveness of Riggin’s telekinetic powers serves as an apt metaphor for the rage that simmers beneath the surface of a creative, sometimes thwarted, personality. Wouldn't we all like to smash up a room or two when we feel we are not being understood or appreciated as creative people?

The material is challenging; hence, perhaps it’s somewhat disappointing box office ($34 million as of January 15, 2015). But this shouldn’t discourage or dissuade you. It's a tremendous film. 

Alejandro González Iñárritu

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