MAN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN: Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)


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Warning: SPOILERS
birdmanMichael Keaton’s career has been what I would call somewhat unusual. He hit his stride early with the movie Beetlejuice and Clean and Sober and then was cast as Batman (and today is still many people’s favorite wing man). He looked like an actor on the rise.
Then after that? Well, I’m not sure how to describe it, but he seemed to do whatever he could to not go the way of fellow thespians like Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler, constantly required to star in the same kind of over the top, often obnoxious comedies that made fortunes at the box office (at least for a time) while trying to make more “meaningful” films on the side.
Instead, Keaton seemed to flee iconic roles and try to define himself as a more serious performer. But in the years since those early parts, it felt more like he was trying to find characters to play that would define him as an actor, rather than succeeding in actually reinventing himself.

The results generally fell into two categories: leads in such films as The Paper, Desperate Measures and Speechless, movies that either flopped or no one remembers; and supporting parts in such movies as Much Ado About Nothing, Jackie Brown and Out of Sight, where, for me, he never felt quite comfortable.

He hasn’t even had a lead in six years, the last being a suicidal hit man in a film he directed, The Merry Gentleman. It actually was a pretty good film, but it didn’t quite connect with the audience and though he hasn’t been exactly incommunicado since then, most of the time when Keaton’s name is mentioned, it’s usually in a conversation that goes, “Yeah, what has he done lately?”.

Now he has a lead again and it’s a lead that he attacks with the ferociousness of a man who is starving to death. He plays Riggan, a movie star who is now producing, starring in and directing a play he wrote himself that is soon to open on Broadway, in the new film Birdman.

Though Keaton has apparently said that the character itself is the farthest one from him he has ever played (and I believe him), it’s a little hard, maybe to a bit of a detriment to the movie, to separate the two. After all, Riggan plays a film actor who hasn’t had a hit for twenty years after playing the super hero Birdman in Birdman 3. Like Keaton, Riggan also seemed to have fled an iconic role, and in doing so, never quite came up with parts that were suitable for him.

The thrill of the movie comes from several sources. Of course, Keaton almost seems to revel in playing this character, scars and all. He allows the camera to catch every sweaty drop, every look of panic and fear in his eyes, every single wrinkle that has etched deep into his face, as if he is throwing down a gauntlet to the audience, daring them to pity him (or begging them to, I’m not always sure which).

And he is careful to continually take off his toupee, almost as a running gag, in order to remind the audience that there’s not as much on top as there used to be. He may not be Samson, but the principal is the same.

If this were a female lead, it would be called a “brave” performance by the critics.

His desperate performance is reflected, if not intensified, by the direction of Alejandro Gonazalez Iñárrritu and the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki (the man behind Gravity and Children of men, who may be the real auteur here), who have joined forces to create a never stopping forward momentum growing out of filming the story in a series of long tracking shots.

There is definitely an energy to the movie that one can’t escape. No matter what else one may say about the film, it’s something of a roller coaster ride, allowing you no escape, dragging you along no matter how much you may want to get off, not that you’d like to.

I do have to be honest, though. I fear I am not quite as impressed by the idea of long tracking shots as others are, possible because I’ve already been incredibly impressed by this stylistic approach in earlier movies such as Russian Arc, Enter the Void, Irreversible and some others.

At the same time, Iñárrritu, Lubezki and the screenwriters do something quite exciting and even different here. The story often jumps in time, with the action suddenly hours, even a whole day, in the future. Almost every time this happened, all I could think was, “well, that was clever” and it even sometimes sent a chill up the ol’ spine.

And they incorporate some marvelous moments of surrealism, if not magic realism (like Riggan flying or suddenly snapping his fingers and scenes from a possible Birdman 4 appear), as well as some tour de force staging (Riggan getting locked out of the theater and having to walk Times Square in his tighty whities, through a drum line no less, in order to enter through the lobby in order to make his last minute entrance—it may not have anything to do with the plot or deepen the character journey, but it is an impressive bit of staging).

But I also have to be honest and say that I’m not sure that the movie, when all is said and done, adds up to a lot more than this technical virtuosity. It’s an amazing achievement behind the camera, but I’m not sure that what’s in front of it is quite as impressive.

I suppose I simply have to say it and let it all fall where it may: I never had a real emotional connection to the central character and what he was going through.

I think there were several reasons for this. The first is that I almost felt that the story began in the middle of act one, in the midst of Riggan having his crisis and because of that I never had enough context to really understand why he was trying to do what he was trying to do.

People throw out hints here and there. But that means I had to stop and figure out what was going on rather than have an immediate emotional reaction to it.

And because I never quite understood why Riggan was desperate to not just star in a Broadway play, but wear all the major hats in doing so, I never really cared that much whether he succeeded or not. I didn’t know what was at stake except some vague, detached issue of self esteem that never seemed fully dramatized.

And though I know this was more than enough for many audience members, it left me cold and distant.  I knew I was supposed to care. I know this because I felt that I was told over and over again that I was supposed to. But I just didn’t know why I was supposed to.

For me personally, I think I would have found my way into the film in a much more satisfying manner if it had started before he began hearing the voices or having the visions, giving me some sort of contrast to his present situation to build on, rather than having to construct it myself.

A second reason piggy backs off this first and is, in a way, hinted at in a scene Riggan has with a theatre critic.

As a sidebar, there are two scenes with the critic, one with an actor from the play, the other with Riggan. Both were incredibly well written, sharp, pungent and to the point, probably the best written scenes in the movie—though at the same time I was a little wary when the critic told Riggan she was going to take down his production even though she hasn’t even seen it. First, as the screenplay is written, the production is pretty much critic proof. But second, she’s doing it because Riggan is an interloper; but movie stars have been interloping Broadway for so long now, most critics have gotten long over it.

At any rate, getting back to the subject at hand (or claw, or beak), the critic did have a point. Riggan is an interloper, but not just your garden variety kind. He is not just starring in a play, he is also producing, directing and has written it.   And on Broadway as well, not even off-.

For me, then, there is something in what he is trying to do that is trivializing not just theater, but the whole creative process as well. Of course, I’ll write, produce, direct and star—how hard can it be, it’s just the theater? Who cares if I’ve never written, directed or produced anything before? Like I said, it’s the theater, how hard can it be?

I think I would have felt a bit more empathy if he had not been so self-absorbedly and egotistically ambitious, starring rather in revival of a classic play, like The Iceman Cometh, about a group of alcoholics down on their luck, or even Long Day’s Journey Into Night where he would be playing a character whose career also stalled and never recovered after playing an iconic role for years in front of the footlights.

Others might say, good for him for trying. And I can’t argue with you on that. If it works for you, it works for you.

But as for me, I guess I say, if someone is doing what Riggan is doing, it’s not because he’s seeking redemption, or trying to reinvent himself as an artist, or even trying to restart a stalled career—

When someone does something like this, it’s because they have a gigantic ego that needs stroked (The Room, anybody?).

And I guess I didn’t really feel like stroking it.

The final reason for my not connecting with the emotions in the screenplay is the screenplay itself. Because once you take away all the virtuosity of Iñárrritu and Lubezki, I’m not sure there’s much there there. In fact, at times, it felt as if all the directing hocus pocus (though hocus pocus of the finest kind) was around to cover up that this was less than a stellar bit of writing.

The screenplay is crafted by four authors (Iñárrritu himself, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo) and for me it felt like it.

It seemed disjointed and unfocused at times, as if everyone was still trying to figure out what they were trying to say (or how to reconcile so many different “what they were trying to says”). With the result that the story and dialog ranged from deeply profound to cliché to banal.

And at the end when Riggan’s daughter looks out the window at what seems to be Riggan achieving flight, it left me puzzled. How was this a resolution to a journey or arc or through line for him?

By the time it was over, I kept thinking of Oscar Levant’s comment on the movies—“Strip away the phony tinsel…and you’ll find the real tinsel underneath”. I’m not convinced that we found anything but the real tinsel when all was said and done here.

In the end, I suppose I’m simply not sure that Iñárrritu has fully recovered from no longer working with Guillermo Arriago who wrote Iñárrritu’s best films, 21 Grams, Amores Perros and Babel.

The cast is solid with all sorts of familiar names. Edward Norton plays Mike, the actor brought in to replace one who gets hit on the head by a lamp (he has that bad boy, obnoxious I’m a method actor and you’re not attitude down pat); Naomi Watts, who is in it for some reason I can’t figure out, is one of the actresses in the play (she has nothing to do and pretty much proceeds not to do it); Emma Stone is Riggan’s daughter Sam (Riggan’s not only trying to salvage his career, but also that old chestnut, salvage his relationship with his daughter); and Lindsay Duncan is the grim reaper of a critic.

But the strongest performance is probably Zach Galifianakis as Jake, Riggan’s lawyer. He never hits a single wrong note as he sweats his way through the film in fear, frustration and deep concern for the survival of his best friend.

With Benjamin Kanes as Birdman.

And a brilliant use of a percussionist score created by Antonio Sanchez.

After this and Whiplash, you may want to buy stock in a drum manufacturing company.

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1 Comment

  1. “it’s a little hard, maybe to a bit of a detriment to the movie, to separate the two. After all, Riggan plays a film actor who hasn’t had a hit for twenty years after playing the super hero Birdman in Birdman 3. Like Keaton, Riggan also seemed to have fled an iconic role, and in doing so, never quite came up with parts that were suitable for him.”

    The resonance of casting Michael Keaton in this role for the audience – whether Keaton thinks it bears any resemblance to him or not (Cause really, who cares what HE thinks?) – is specifically why we don’t need a “first act”. Part of the fun of the movie, for me, was imagining we were getting “filled in” on Keaton’s/Riggan’s life after Batman/Birdman; we know he’s not the star he used to be, we know he’s hearing voices (Or A voice, anyway), we know he’s worked up a “passion project” that he hopes will restore him artistically (While “Birdman” pushes him in the direction of trying to “get on top” again, and be a “movie star”), and we get all this without “a first act”, which IMO, would have just been “gilding the lily” and adding screen time to an already long movie (There’s certainly nothing in the movie I would have wanted replaced by being spoon-fed Riggan’s back-story). Honestly, I admired the efficiency of it.

    I don’t know if critics are calling Keaton’s performance “brave”, but if they aren’t, I think they should be – Not so much because he shows his age, but because the nature of the role does invite the audience to speculate about him personally, and not always flatteringly (Again, Keaton can think and say what he will, but that hardly matters – It’s hard to imagine Keaton the person/actor has never had at least some of the thoughts/feelings “Riggan/Birdman” expresses in the film).

    I just listened to a Slate podcast discussion of the film, and agree with them that not getting a clear sense of whether the play-within-the-movie is any good or not is a problem (My sense of it is that it’s mediocre-at-best), but that said, I don’t have the automatically negative view you seem to have that the character wearing multiple “hats” in getting the play produced is merely a sign of his ego and sense-of-entitlement – To some degree, yes (Shocker – actors have egos), but I think you can also read it as “doing what he has to do” to make it happen, because “Who cares about your passion project more than you?”.

So tell me what you think.

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