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09 Jan 2015 10:02
Flying high: Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in the showbiz comedy 'Birdman'. (Photo: Alison Rosa)
You’ll believe a man can fly. Or you’ll believe that believing you can fly and flying are sort of the same thing.
Either way, Alejandro
González Iñárritu achieves takeoff in a big way with his crazy, freaky-deaky,
hellza- poppin’ showbiz comedy Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
I certainly levitated with enjoyment. The Wings of Desire, as
directed by Mel Brooks?
At certain moments, watching it felt like inhaling
laughing gas mixed with helium. And the technically extraordinary “flight”
sequence looked very much like dreams of flying I’ve had myself.
Birdman is shot in one single take, without cuts (but with a
few seamless digital sutures) and depicts the escalating anxiety attack being
suffered by a failing movie star called Riggan Thomson, played with fiercely
tender self-pity by Michael Keaton. Poor Riggan has haughtily abandoned the dumb
superhero role of Birdman that made him rich and famous, and is now trying for
credibility by starring in his own self-financed Broadway stage adaptation of a
Raymond Carver story.
He has hired his lawyer buddy Jake (Zach Galifianakis) to
produce, and his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) to be his personal assistant, in a
pathetic attempt to make up for neglecting her in childhood while away shooting
those hateful Birdman films — an abandonment that contributed to her drug
Divorced Riggan is now in a semi-covert relationship with
co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who wants a baby; however, she also has a
Sapphic tendresse for the show’s leading lady, Lesley (Naomi Watts), who must
act opposite her own boyfriend, Mike Shiner, a hyperactive, narcissistic
method-acting diva hilariously played by Edward Norton.
As opening night approaches, the pressure is causing Riggan
to hallucinate, and he is visited by the granite-voiced figure of Birdman, the
superhero monster he created, ordering him to forget the theatre and reclaim
his chief superpower: making movie megabucks.
Plangent romantic seriousness It is a film that has been wildly hailed by the critics,
despite depicting critics as fatuous, shallow, parasitic and prejudiced. At one
stage, in an excitable impromptu casting discussion, Shiner’s own popularity
with the critics is discussed: “They want to spooge on him! Right on his face!”
As for Iñárritu, he’s getting the facial-spooge-tsunami he deserves, showing a
glorious capacity for comedy I hadn’t suspected from his earlier, more solemn
movies like 21 Grams, Babel or Biutiful. This does, however, finally display
those movies’ tendency towards what I can only describe as plangent romantic
Something in the jittery, crazy dialogue makes it sometimes
hard to tell whether the characters are talking as themselves or performing the
Carver dialogue. Riggan himself will roam the peeling, faintly nightmarish
theatre corridors and burst out into the (genuine) crowded New York street — a
bravura single-take staging in one unitary space that gives the movie the
excitement of some experimental theatrical happening. And the unbroken take is
weirdly reminiscent of first-person point-of-view movies like Gaspar Noé’s
Enter the Void or indeed Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake.
There is simply something disturbing in the unending,
relentless single view. As the restless action unfolds, you’ll hear strange
passages of music, orchestral swells or insistent nerve-jangling jazz drumming
— music that may or may not be diegetic. Is Riggan using it as background music
in the show? Can the characters hear it as well as us?
Every star’s worst nightmare And all the time, poor Riggan is approaching a mental
breakdown because of the imminent critical and commercial catastrophe; and he
can’t quite admit to himself that he is addicted to celebrity, though he is
unsure how to renegotiate his declining position as a famous person in the
alien new world of reality shows and social media.
Amusingly, he confesses to a horrendous status-anxiety
episode while on a plane with George Clooney —like Clooney, Keaton himself
played Batman in that pre-Nolan era when superheroes were not quite as
ubi-quitous as they are now. Riggan doesn’t want to renounce his celebrity. He
wants to upgrade it, improve it, make it classier. Deep in his heart, he
prefers the acclaim of strangers to intimacy with his wife and daughter.
And there is a brilliant, farcical moment when he is locked
out of the theatre just before needing to go on, and the only way to the stage
is through the public front-of-house entrance. The situation is every star’s
worst nightmare: having somehow to prove your importance and validate your
existence from scratch.
Birdman is a delicious and delirious pleasure. — © Guardian
News & Media 2015
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