Birdman

Face it Dad. You’re doing this, because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what, you’re right – you don’t.

Saying those words to someone would be an effort on your part to give some one a wake up call. A reality check. On the other hand, when those words are said to you – by your own daughter

– the impact might be crushing.

Especially if once upon a time, you were a major movie star. And the key words in that sentence are – once upon a time. These days you have to field questions from the press that go something like this:

Are you afraid that people will say, you’re doing this play because you’re a washed up comic strip character?

Such is the current situation of one Riggan Thompson, a former swashbuckling film star of the incredibly popular, superhero, comic book character, film franchise known as Birdman. Twenty years ago, Thompson turned down Birdman 4 and following that decision, his career began a slow down hill descent.

These days, Riggan Thompson has mortgaged everything he has to mount a Broadway show that he’s written, while also directing, and starring in. It is an adaption of the Raymond Carver book of short stories called What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

Thompson is played by Michael Keaton. You remember Mr. Keaton, who once upon a time starred in two films that were incredibly popular, and clearly fit into what we call a superhero, comic book character, film franchise. These films were known as Batman.

Woman's Voice yelling at Thompson as he stands  near the edge of the rooftop: Is this for real, or are you shooting a film? Thompson: A film... Woman: You people are full of crap...

Woman’s Voice yelling at Thompson as he stands near the edge of the rooftop:
Is this for real, or are you shooting a film?
Thompson: A film…
Woman: You people are full of crap…

So here’s Keaton as Birdman, or sub-textually, Batman. Is it irony, perfect casting, or serendipity? I don’t have an answer to that question, only an opinion – that it doesn’t matter. Keaton fits the part as an actor, as a star who has fallen far, if not quite all the way to obscurity, and as a man who was once capable of dominating a movie, and if given the right opportunity, script, and direction, might be able to do it again.

Directed by the Oscar nominated director of BabelAlejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu who shares co-screenwriting credits with Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo – the film might be called a dark or black comedy. Only without too many of those laugh-out-loud moments. Or it might be described as a satirical venture to both behind the scenes as well as onstage of a Broadway show.

Or maybe some folks will call it a fantasy that goes from the cramped dressing rooms, into the narrow hallways, and up and down the interior staircases of backstage in New York’s St. James Theater on West 44th Street all the way out of theater into the New York skyline above, and a walk through New York’s thronged Times Square below.

But that is also a question that doesn’t require a simple answer, as all of the above apply. So, in a sense, it doesn’t matter how we label this film.

As for style, there are plenty of amazing pieces of camera work. Like Martin Scorsese‘s camera wound its way behind Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco as they threaded their way through the bowels of the Copa nightclub in New York in the 1990 film Goodfellas – in Birdman – it looks as if the entire film is made in that style.

While we know it isn’t a complete one-take, it has been made to look that way, and it is very impressive. It is so well done, that for a while, you are giving a lot of attention to it, until eventually it has overtaken your amazement to such a degree, that miraculously, you no longer even need to consider or think about it. Just as you don’t have to think too hard to find the way out of your own home.

But there are more tricks as well, Keaton as Riggan Thompson can levitate at times, even fly, or snap his fingers and cars explode, helicopters crash, and/or a full-bore war breaks out on the streets of Manhattan. But wait there’s more. Keaton’s Thompson also carries with him, at seemingly all times, an inner vision (or hallucination) of the Birdman, who follows him around giving advice, or pushing, cajoling, egging him on, or simply taunting him. In a real world setting we might call these inner thoughts or inner conflicts.

But in Birdman, this voice in Thompson’s head is all too real and fully visual with a scary beak, and that huge and impressive wingspan, and that fierce look that all predator birds like hawks and eagles have. We might say that Thompson is Birdman and Birdman is Thompson. Which means of course that Riggan Thompson in his rumpled Columbo-esque raincoat can take flight whenever he chooses.

The magic of the film is that it becomes so impossible to decifer the dreams, or hallucinations from the reality. Yes, you have to suspend your disbelief here and there, which is why many call the film a fantasy.

But Birdman is so much more than just Michael Keaton/Riggan Thompson. The supporting cast is filled with big names like Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, and even Zach Galifianakis (and literally speaking, that really is a big name). Each is amazing as well.

Also on hand are Andrea Riseborough and Lindsay Duncan as Tabitha, the witch-y New York Drama critic from hell who resents a comic book hero like Thompson’s Birdman for even contemplating that he has enough stuff in him to tread on a hallowed Broadway stage.

Tabitha: He's a clown in a lycra bird suit... Mike Shiner: Yeah, he is . But he's an actor, going out on that stage risking everything...

Tabitha: He’s a Hollywood clown in a lycra bird suit…
Mike Shiner: Yeah, he is . But he’s an actor, going out on that stage, risking everything…

I mentioned above that while this film does qualify as a comedy, there’s wasn’t much in the way of laugh out loud moments. To clarify that, I meant not many of what you might call snappy one-liners, or jokes. Rather we have situational humor like Edward Norton’s Mike Shiner getting into a scuffle with Thompson, while clad in just his underpants. Or Thompson getting locked out of the theater during intermission, and having to navigate his way back to the front entrance to the theater while walking through Times Square in just his tighty whitey briefs. Hanes, Jockey, and Fruit of the Loom execs must have loved that scene.

In short this is a film that is partly a film about the life and times of Broadway theatrical folks, as was All About Eve. Partly a film about an actor desperate to get his mojo back. Partly a black comedy the likes of which are like nothing you’ve ever seen before except for maybe One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or even Mash.

It is a send up of ego, of celebrity status, of the idyllic and forever Broadway, and is just fascinating as it plays out before your eyes. Sometimes it is hard on you as this film requires you to hear every line, and absorb both the literal and figurative body blows that are delivered from beginning to end.

Don’t miss it. Four point seven-five and recommended. Let me add a qualifier to that. As well made as it is – this isn’t a film for everyone. Nor is it a family film. If you are the age of being a grandparent, then absolutely don’t bring your grandkids. But if you are an adult – that is someone between the ages of being a grandparent and someone not all that far from being a kid yourself, but nowwith your own kids, then you are a fit. A knowledge of Broadway or having experienced Broadway as an involved person or as a ticket-buyer will certainly help – but should not be considered a requisite.

On the other hand, if you come to Birdman, with the expectation of it being another Marvel Comic Book hero film with the requisite bullets, explosions, and car chases you won’t be in your element at all.

The trailer follows:

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4 thoughts on “Birdman

  1. Hey Mike, I glanced thru your review as I haven’t seen this yet but in regards to your sentence “…if you come to Birdman, with the expectation of it being another Marvel Comic Book hero film with the requisite bullets, explosions, and car chases you won’t be in your element at all.” Oy no, why would anyone expect this to be a bombastic superhero movie?? If so then they obviously don’t know Inarritu’s work. I expect the opposite and more of a character study, with a mix of quirky comedy and drama. I’m glad to see Keaton in the lead again here.

    • Of course you are 99% correct in taking Inarritu’s work into consideration.

      But then there’s the 1% per centers who look at the movie poster…this time with the Birdman in all his feathered finery.
      Thanks for the comments Ruth, always appreciated.

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