Hero To Zero: Keaton Returns In ‘Birdman’

_AF_6405.CR2What has Michael Keaton been up to lately?

I don’t know the answer to that. I know he’s appeared in a handful of movies I haven’t seen (and have no desire to see) such as RoboCop and Need For Speed. He voiced the hilarious Ken doll in Toy Story 3, a fairly recent blockbuster. I still think he’s the big screen’s Batman, in the big screen’s best Batman movies.

But on the whole, it doesn’t seem like Keaton’s been on the Hollywood radar since the late 90s. Thus Birdman feels like something of a comeback, even though I acknowledge that Michael Keaton never exactly went anywhere. (He always knew where he was, even if the rest of us didn’t.) At least Keaton’s still getting paid, which makes him better off than Riggan Thompson, the character he plays in Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance). Thompson and Keaton are both famous for playing superheroes named after flying animals, so it’s hard not to feel like this is a little autobiographical. But the superhero connection is hopefully all these two have in common… because Riggan Thompson is nuts.

Birdman is mostly a love letter to actors — both in its storyline and also in the sense that it gives so many actors juicy, quirky scenes to play with. Keaton is not playing himself, but in a way, he is playing all actors, everywhere, reduced to their basic form: an ego. A bundle of neuroses. A child in an adult’s body, desperate to be loved. An in this case, a man who has allowed inhabiting other people to take him over, so that now these other characters are free to come and go through his mind as they please.Birdman_costume-michael-keatonRiggan hears the voice of Birdman frequently throughout the film — it’s his own voice, but angrier and raspier and, it must be said, more like Christian Bale’s Batman voice than Keaton’s own. It makes sense that such a ridiculous-sounding character would be the one to manifest itself in an actor’s psyche. Birdman is a brash and invincible movie hero, the counterpoint to the fragile man Riggan Thompson has become. Birdman is beloved, and Riggan Thompson is, too, but only because the general public can’t tell the two apart. Riggan is approached by several fans in the film, and none of them have any regard for who he is as a person or what he might be going through at any given moment. To them, he’s still a costumed character, even when he’s dressed like any other person. He’s a photo op, an autograph, and — once he gets locked out of the theater in his tightie-whities — a meme. No wonder Riggan is losing his grip on who he is. Most of the people in the world are confusing him with Birdman, too.

But a real man can’t be a superhero. Perhaps being a stage actor is the closest a human being can get — dashing into the fray so many nights a week, wearing masks, hiding one’s true persona to please the masses. Actors hide underneath other personas, and Riggan is starting to lose his mind, but the people around him don’t know it, because they’re so used to actors; crazy behavior. Temper tantrums, delusions of grandeur, outrageous demands — what’s the difference between a star and a schizophrenic, anyway?Birdman-naomi-watts-bloody-nightgownIn Birdman, Riggan Thompson is a 90s action star who has fallen off of Hollywood’s radar since turning down the fourth installment in the franchise. In an effort to be taken seriously as an artist (for a change), he writes, directs, and stars in a play based on Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” His co-stars are Lesley (Naomi Watts), an actress for whom this appearance on Broadway is the culmination of a lifelong dream to “make it in the theater,” Laura (Andrea Riseborough), his pregnant girlfriend with bisexual tendencies, and Mike (Edward Norton), a hotshot Thespian-with-a-capital-T whose ego practically shoots through the roof.

Birdman does not take place in real time but does, supposedly, play out in one continuous shot — there are no visible cuts, though it is obvious when an hour or a day has passed. That gimmick lends everything a distinctly surreal vibe, enhanced by Riggan’s imagined telekinesis and the voice of Birdman that occasionally intrudes into his reality. Riggan is obviously an unbalanced dude when we meet him, and as the pressures surrounding his theater debut mount, that only gets worse. He gets into an All About Eve-style competition with Mike, who brings his own brand of crazy to the production, as Riggan’s assistant/daughter Sam (Emma Stone), lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), and ex-wife (Amy Ryan) grow increasingly worried about his erratic behavior. (But never as concerned as they should be.)_MG_1102.CR2Birdman is an impressive piece of filmmaking, particularly on a technical level. It wouldn’t have been possible to make it this way a decade  ago — at least, not nearly so fluidly. It’s darkly comedic and, at times, straight-up dark, and gives its actors plenty of vibrant opportunities to poke fun at their profession. (There are also some sly digs at real-life celebrities like Robert Downey, Jr., Jeremy Renner, and Justin Bieber too.) In one pretty incredible scene, Riggan faces off against a bitchy theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) who is determined to sink his passion project no matter how good or bad it is merely because she doesn’t like it when Hollywood stars try and take over the Great White Way. It’s a wonder real-world critics have flipped over Birdman, given Riggan’s acidic takedown of professional criticism.

Yes, Birdman is one of this fall’s most lauded releases, and could very well earn nominations for several of its stars — most likely, Edward Norton and Michael Keaton. (Edward Norton is fresher, funnier, and more exciting here than he has been elsewhere in years.) It also has a lively percussive score by Antonio Sanchez. The story itself is not as novel as the filmmaking, however. It has the same “oh, fuck it” spirit as something like I Heart Huckabee’s, the madcap, half-grounded-in-reality satirical edge of Adaptation. We’ve seen criticism of critics in movies like Ratatouille, and the unhinged star at its center has quite a lot in common with Black Swan’s Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) — especially since both hallucinate giant bird-people at some point in the course of their stories.

But it’s a little easier to feel sympathy for the oppressed ballerina than it is for the brash, outrageous Riggan Thompson, whose trajectory is pretty obvious from the get-go. That doesn’t lessen the pleasure of watching his interactions with the other characters, all played by terrific actors at the top of their game. But I was in awe of the movie more than I was emotionally invested in it. I can’t think of a single scene I didn’t take some pleasure in, but only a handful resonated on a higher level. My favorite? An exchange between Lesley and Laura, as the two attempt to validate each other as both women and actresses, because the self-obsessed men in their lives can’t be bothered to take notice. Birdman has five pretty fantastic parts for women, and these characters come off a lot better than the men — all jerks — do. It made me wish for a story that followed them instead of the wild and crazy actor whose story I felt I’d seen before.

naomi-watts-nightgown-BirdmanBirdman is quite different than any of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s previous efforts, which include prestige pics like 21 Grams and Babel. I welcome the grim weirdness from him and wouldn’t mind seeing more of it. Birdman is less of a Hollywood satire than you might expect from the premise, and much more about The Theater. Thus it is a movie that is probably most appreciated by actors and other theater-folk, who are both tenderly embraced and thoroughly mocked by this movie. Films about tortured talent are big this year — Whiplash being the more slick and entertaining release currently in the theaters, and Frank being slightly more grounded in reality. Individual moments crackle with wit and originality — I wish the overall thrust of the story had the same originality.

Instead, it’s a masterfully silly, self-indulgent movie best enjoyed by the very people who made it. That’s not really a bad thing, but Black Swan ended on a surprising note of excellence, with a bloody Nina awash in lights and applause and one sublime line of dialogue: “I was perfect.” Birdman seems poised to end on a similar beat, and then goes on. Like Riggan, Birdman doesn’t quite know what its limits are and over-reaches trying to make a grandiose artistic point that it already made several times over. Less is not more here.

I don’t suppose Riggan would take too kindly to my criticism, however, so let’s wrap this up before I overstay my welcome. Riggan Thompson had no chance in hell of earning an Oscar nomination for playing Birdman, but the same can’t be said for Michael Keaton. He’s a very good Birdman, but still a better Batman. I’m glad he’s back in a starring role, still getting nuts after all these years.BIRDMAN, (aka BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE), from left: Michael Keaton, Emma

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