Re:View – ‘Birdman’
You’ll hear much talk of this as we run up to Oscar season, with good reason. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, director of ’21 Grams’ and ‘Amores Perros’, has created something so unique in this comedy-drama that it feels he’s pushed the boundaries into a new kind of filmmaking. I ran through his credits on IMDbPro and an extraordinary list of hits came up for which he received the credit of ‘Thanks’. The man has been around some major successes, but will ‘Birman’ break him out of arthouse and into the mainstream?
It deserves to. The story of a washed-up actor once famous for an action movie franchise, now seizing one last chance to do something he’s be able to feel good about is a more universal subject than it first appears. Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, has pinned all his money and last hopes on financing, adapting and starring in a version of a Raymond Carver short story on Broadway, but everything is against him – least of all his own inner voice. That belongs to Birdman, his former alter-ego superhero, star of a popular but trashy film series and the only reason why anyone might come and see his play – unless it turns out to be good.
But it won’t, because his leading man can’t act (and anyway is rushed off to hospital after an onstage accident), and the New York Times critic has already sworn to take the play down because Thomson doesn’t deserve a shot on Broadway. Oh, and his new leading man, a mercurial genius played by Edward Norton, is brilliant onstage but a nightmare the rest of the time. Then there’s Keaton’s ex-wife and sullen daughter Emma Stone, just back from rehab, leading lady Naomi Watts, facing first night fears, and Keaton’s possibly pregnant second lead, with whom he’s having a relationship. What could go wrong?
There. I’ve set that up as a movie that sounds like ‘Noises Off” crossed with ‘All That Jazz’ – who wants to see a film about rampant backstage egotism? But this is nothing of a kind, because what we’re seeing isn’t what it’s about. For a start, there are Keaton’s telekinetic abilities that allow him to float and fly, then the meta-fiction of the Birman himself (Keaton of course played Batman) and the fact which gradually dawns on you that the film appears to consist of one seamless long Steadicam take, like ‘Russian Ark’.
What we have here is the story of a life, simple as that, from ambition to compromise to failure then reassessment and perhaps, resurrection – and it works. The driving pace and energy of the piece is astounding, from the percussive score to the action that drags you through the auditorium and backstage corridors of New York’s St James theatre out into the street, around the front and back again, then all over the city.
Meanwhile, Keaton is put through the wringer, from confronting his alter-ego and at one low point, getting his dressing gown shut in the alleyway door and being required to push through the Broadway crowds in his pants to get back into the theatre while everyone is filming him for Facebook. But it’s his relationships which need fixing more than the play and where the real damage has been done, especially with a daughter also on her final chance to make good.
This is a maximalist movie that yanks you through Keaton’s adrenaline-drenched world at breakneck speed to see if a man might redeem himself and get out alive. Will the rifts be healed? Will the play bomb? Will Keaton die? It’s hard to say, even after the credits have rolled. But what an amazing ride. It’s the bar-setter for this year’s awards.