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NYFF 2014: Wild ‘Birdman’ Soars With Strong Performances and Ambitious Wit

By  · Published on October 10th, 2014

Fox Searchlight

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman has plenty of gimmicks to drive it – there’s Michael Keaton playing the eponymous cinematic superhero (Keaton played Batman, you know), an energetic shooting style meant to approximate a continuous shot and that whole play-within-a-play thing (for Birdman, it’s a play-within-a-movie, but you get the point) – but despite a bevy of clever tricks, Birdman succeeds simply because of it has the basics down pat. Everything else is just icing (feathers?).

Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, a faded and fallen movie star who never quite bounced back from the superhero franchise from which Iñárritu’s feature derives its name – the film’s full title is actually Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), which is a mouthful, but which makes perfect sense by the film’s end – and who is desperate to recapture some former (or, really, some fresh) glory. Riggan has launched an ambitious project to get back into the limelight, a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” that he’s pulling triple duty on (adapting the script, directing and starring in the play).

Mere days away from opening, things aren’t going so well, and they’re about to get worse, thanks to a heavy stage light that cracks a middling actor on the head, leaving Riggan and the production scrambling for a replacement, and Riggan believing that he caused the accident, just by force of will. Oh, yeah, that’s something the former movie star thinks he can do: move things with his mind.

Riggan’s abilities are wholly questionable (even if we do first meet him while he’s levitating in his dressing room), but Keaton’s own work here is top notch and his performance is consistently excellent and revelatory. Keaton finds the shades of Riggan, a character who could easily fall into caricature, and easily combines his acidic wit, bad attitude and tremendous vulnerability into a singular package. Keaton isn’t the only star in the film – not by a mile – and the entire cast of Birdman turns in exceptional performances, particularly Ed Norton as the last minute replacement actor, Naomi Watts as the floundering star of the production and Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter/assistant Sam. Even smaller performances from Amy Ryan and Zach Galifianakis slip easily into the big patchwork that Iñárritu has crafted, and the result is the best ensemble performance of the year.

Iñárritu has shot the film to feel as if it’s comprised of one continuous shot, though he’s not beholden to the gimmick, as the film has obvious, if still intriguing cuts (passages through dark doorways and shots that sweep up to the sky seem to be home to the majority of scene switches) and there are frequent zips forward in time. Instead of leaning on the ambitious stylistic choice, it merely serves as a witty and energetic addition, and the fast pace of such a filming constraint keeps the film clipping along at a snappy and smart pace.

The entirety of Birdman takes place in and around Broadway’s St. James Theatre as Riggan and his insecure band of fellow performers and various hangers-on attempt to get his version of Carver’s short story ready for theatrical consumption. Riggan’s public persona as Birdman (and his private struggle with the character, who literally speaks to him throughout the feature) is consuming, and few people seem actually interested in seeing his stage chops on display (including a particularly insidious critic character, chillingly played by Lindsay Duncan). The play is all that Riggan has left, and although Keaton’s work in the film is some of his best, Riggan himself is outshone at every turn, by either actual performances (Norton’s Mike Shiner is a mercurial windbag, but man can the guy act) or the various dramas playing out around him.

Birdman is energetically and lovingly made, and while explorations of the meaning and price of fame are easy to find in Hollywood, Iñárritu and Keaton’s obvious dedication to crafting a unique (and yes, often frankly weird) film set it apart. It’s a snappy, smart and soaring achievement, one that combines stellar performances and bold ideas into a breathtakingly entertaining package. This thing flies, and even if its audience is reduced to looking up and pointing skyward, that’s a pleasure in itself.

The Upside: All of the performances are excellent, the first half exhibits tremendous energy and excitement, the “single shot” conceit never feels gimmicky, cleverly skewers modern celebrity without reverting to preachy tactics, is genuinely thrilling to watch.

The Downside: The film’s second half is unable to keep up with the incredible energy created early on, a series of occurrences feel unexpectedly (and unnecessary foreboding), some effects look unfinished.

On the Side: The majority of the film was shot inside the actual St. James Theatre. (The next stage show to play at the St. James is Side Show, which opens at the end of this month.)

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