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In Theaters: BIRDMAN (2014)

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BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)
(US - 2014)


Directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu. Written by Alejandro G. Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr, and Armando Bo. Cast: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Lindsay Duncan, Jeremy Shamos, Merritt Wever, Clark Middleton, Damian Young, Bill Camp, Benjamin Kanes. (R, 119 mins)

Though it was conceived by AMORES PERROS and 21 GRAMS director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and three collaborating screenwriters, the surreal dark comedy BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) could easily be interpreted as a soul-baring confessional for Michael Keaton and an analytical walk through his career. Both Inarritu and Keaton say that the film wasn't written specifically for Keaton, but after seeing BIRDMAN, it's impossible to picture anyone else starring in it. So many elements of Keaton's career and the public's perception of him--as well as the image of one co-star in particular--are woven into the fabric of the story that in many ways, you could argue that this is Keaton's ALL THAT JAZZ...minus, of course, the production numbers and the general theme of substance-abetted self-destruction. Both BIRDMAN and the 1979 Bob Fosse classic have a past-his-prime figure (actor in BIRDMAN, director in JAZZ) laying it all on the line for a production that's a culmination of his life's work, a vindication of his existence, a middle-finger response to those critics and contemporaries who doubted and dismissed him.


Similar to Keaton turning down $15 million for a third BATMAN movie in 1995, his Riggan Thomson is a faded Hollywood celebrity who gave up a huge payday 20 years earlier when he walked away from the superhero franchise BIRDMAN. His Hollywood career never regained momentum, and now, Riggan is orchestrating what he believes will be his ultimate achievement, one that finally validates him as a serious artist.  He's mounting a stage production of the Raymond Carver short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." He's the writer, director, star, and financier, and it's not going well. He's run through his fortune to the point where he has to remortgage his home in Malibu that's supposed to belong to his recovering junkie daughter Sam (Emma Stone), and the other male lead (Jeremy Shamos) is such a terrible actor that Riggan may or may not have arranged for a stage light to fall directly on his head. The play's female lead Lesley (Naomi Watts), given her big break by Riggan, suggests her boyfriend Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) step into the vacated role. Shiner is a Broadway actor of repute, and his involvement immediately boosts ticket sales and garners more publicity, which gives the notoriously volatile Shiner enough ammo to start questioning Riggan's writing and directing decisions and trying to take more artistic control over the development of his character and the staging of the play itself (as far back as AMERICAN HISTORY X, Norton has been an infamously pushy control freak, undermining directors, writers, and co-stars, and is a remarkably good sport in the way he allows Inarritu to lampoon that reputation here). Riggan is tortured by self-doubt over this project, with Shiner's constant meddling, his manager/lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) fretting over the money, and the probable pregnancy of his girlfriend/co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough), and when alone, demonstrates magical, telekinetic powers and is both bolstered and harangued by the deep, forceful voice of Birdman. Riggan's grip on reality is slipping with each passing day as opening night approaches, and it's not helped by a bitter, spiteful Broadway critic (Lindsay Duncan) who has vowed to destroy him and everything he represents about celebrity culture.


BIRDMAN is often bilious in its tone, as Inarritu takes aim at vacuous celebrities, the fleeting nature of fame, pretentious actors, critics more interested in tearing someone down rather than attempting to understand their art, and a public that judges the worth of something by how much it's trending on social media. Even Keaton approaches it in a self-aware, self-deprecating manner (while destroying his dressing room, Riggan rants about how he's gotten old, wrinkled, flabby, and balding, screaming "You look like a turkey with leukemia!" at the mirror). In a lot of ways, it's the NETWORK of backstage dramas, but above all that, it's a career-defining validation of Michael Keaton, one of the busiest actors of the '80s and early '90s who never really went away, but just didn't seem to be working as much as he should be, or on projects that really showcased his talent. From his first moments on the big screen in Ron Howard's NIGHT SHIFT back in 1982, it was obvious that Keaton was a star. But in walking away from BATMAN FOREVER because he thought the script was terrible and didn't want to do it without Tim Burton, he chose integrity over money, and the momentum was never the same. He never became a pariah, but at the same time, Hollywood never seemed sure of him after that. Though he had some hits (1993's MY LIFE, 1996's MULTIPLICITY) and shined in ensemble pieces (1997's JACKIE BROWN), Keaton stepped back after 1998's JACK FROST and worked very sparingly throughout the next decade, with a Golden Globe-nominated performance in the 2002 HBO film LIVE FROM BAGHDAD, a couple of straight-to-video titles and a minor hit with the 2005 horror film WHITE NOISE. To a certain demographic, he's probably best known as the voice of Chick Hicks in the CARS franchise, but in recent years, Keaton has focused on smaller films like 2006's Don DeLillo-scripted GAME 6 and his own little-seen 2008 directing effort THE MERRY GENTLEMAN, while popping up in things like 2005's HERBIE: FULLY LOADED or this year's ROBOCOP remake and NEED FOR SPEED when he has a need for money. It was probably Keaton's scene-stealing supporting turn in the 2010 Will Ferrell/Mark Wahlberg comedy THE OTHER GUYS, as a beleaguered, TLC-referencing police captain forced to take a second job at Bed Bath & Beyond because he "has a kid at NYU who wants to explore his bisexuality and become a DJ," that reminded audiences of just how funny he could be. But he's a terrific serious actor as well, even though that's mostly been demonstrated by his playing villains in 1990's PACIFIC HEIGHTS and 1998's DESPERATE MEASURES. Compared to the height of his 1980s fame, the now-63-year-old Keaton was pretty much off the radar pre-BIRDMAN, but perhaps he's always been the kind of actor who wouldn't be fully appreciated until he was older. Make no mistake: this is the role of Keaton's career.


It's impossible to discuss all of the ALL THAT JAZZ parallels without going into spoilers, but a major example is the way both films take frequent leaves from reality: BIRDMAN with Riggan's telekinetic and increasingly destructive powers, and his conversations with his younger self in the Birdman costume (played by uncredited Benjamin Kanes) who eggs him on with either encouragement or scorn; and ALL THAT JAZZ's booze-addled, pill-popping Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) and his conversations with an angel (Jessica Lange) who's alternately sympathetic and derisively mocking. Riggan and Gideon are men pushing themselves to the brink, cognizant of their failures both professional and personal, both men are on friendly terms with ex-wives they treated badly but knew they kind of man they were marrying, and both try to salvage relationships with their daughters and their current girlfriends. Both will stop at nothing to prove something to...themselves? It costs Joe Gideon his life in a way that questions just how much of ALL THAT JAZZ was supposed to be really happening, and by the end, that comparison comes into play with BIRDMAN. It's a strange, funny, angry, and dreamlike film, shot by the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (CHILDREN OF MEN, THE TREE OF LIFE, and an Oscar winner for his work on GRAVITY) in a way that deceptively makes the entire two-hour film play like one continuous take. Inarritu doesn't spotlight the gimmickry or the trickery that goes along in maintaining the illusion, but in coupling it with a persistent jazz drumming score, there's an uneasy tension that grows throttling as the film--and Riggan Thomsen himself--careen toward their destiny. BIRDMAN isn't for everyone, but any fan of Michael Keaton must consider it a must-see as he delivers one of the great film performances in recent years.





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