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Film Review: 'Birdman'

Jeremy Fuster |
October 17, 2014 | 11:15 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Michael Keaton plays a failed actor haunted by his superhero glory days, among many other things. (Fox Searchlight)
Michael Keaton plays a failed actor haunted by his superhero glory days, among many other things. (Fox Searchlight)
It's sort of a miracle that "Birdman" doesn't come off as an irritating spectacle that rubs its gimmicky presentation and smart-ass script in everyone's face. Instead, it ends up being a fantastic dark comedy about a bunch of messed up people trying to not waste their last chance at their dreams on the unforgiving Broadway theatre scene. At the center of it all is Michael Keaton, a former superhero actor not known for much else playing a former superhero actor not known for much else. Much was made about this art-imitating-life casting while this film made the festival rounds, but thankfully this gets pushed aside as Keaton portrays a man dealing with chaos within and surrounding him.

"Birdman" follows Riggan Thomson (Keaton), a former comic book hero star in the early 90s whose acting career and personal life have got to shambles since he hung up the latex suit. Now he has put the last remaining bits of his reputation and fortune on the line to write, produce, direct, and star in a Raymond Carver adaptation at the legendary St. James Theatre on Broadway. With Riggan are a frantic assistant (Zach Galifianakis, restrained but still sharply satirical), a sneering daughter still bitter about his neglect (Emma Stone), a nutty girlfriend and costar (Andrea Riseborough), and an aspiring actress pinning her Broadway dreams on this big debut (Naomi Watts).

READ MORE: Film Review: 'The Judge'

When one of the actors is knocked out by a freak accident, big-time actor and bigger-time jackass Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), gets called in as a replacement. He's insanely talented, but his difficult temper and desire to take over the entire production -- a better example of art-imitating-life casting than Keaton -- starts off a chain reaction of terrible disasters that plague the show's preview performances. With opening night seeming to spell certain doom, Riggan slowly sinks into madness as the voice of Birdman taunts him in his head over his failures and his obsession with being taken seriously, a voice that Keaton delivers with a low rasp not too different from the most recent actor to play Batman.

The film is shot to look like one continuous take, using still shots of buildings and the darkness of the St. James to make leaps in the passage of time. If the style feels reminiscent of "Gravity," it's because both films were shot by newly-minted Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki. But while "Gravity" just let its technical wonders speak for themselves, "Birdman" seems to emulate its protagonist's desperate need to impress a bit too much. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu has no time for subtlety, shoving all his brilliant little ideas to the forefront to the point that the sizzle almost overwhelms the substance. Yes, man, we get how you're using a chaotic jazz drum soundtrack to symbolize Riggan's unstable state of mind. You don't need to actually put the drummers on the screen for us to get your brilliant symbolism.  Iñárritu's satire is also hit-and-miss. He sets up a nasty New York Times critic (Lindsay Duncan) as a strawman whose snobbery he can destroy with a biting rant from Keaton, but it just comes off as ridiculous self-importance. Iñárritu should watch "Ratatouille" to see how a film properly addresses the relationship between artist and critic.

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Fortunately, these directorial excess are kept in check by the cast's brilliant acting and the film's quick, light tone. "Birdman" gives each of its characters some solemn moments to give due weight to their hope and desperation, but doesn't let the melancholy moments turn everything into a depressing slog. The dry humor that the characters use to get through the day and handle the backstage drama ends up giving the film a bright feel in spite of its subject matter. Much like the recent David O. Russell films, scenes that should be horrifying end up being darkly funny, such as when Keaton gets into a scrap with a speedo-clad Norton. They are a bittersweet mix of selfishness and compassion, making them all easy to root for even though the play is set to be a bigger laughingstock than "Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark."

For those who have zero tolerance for over-the-top presentation simply for its own sake, "Birdman" will likely come off as Iñárritu's pretentious play at being an AR-TEEST. But the rest of the moviegoing populace -- especially those who are coming to see Keaton -- will probably have a ball. The surreal presentation is only slightly weirder than the surreal events and characters of the film and the actual surreal Broadway world that the film sets itself in. Almost every element feels justified and necessary, allowing "Birdman" to fly right up to the sun and somehow not lose its wings.

Jeremy Fuster can be reached here or on Twitter



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