Birdman: Best of 2014?

BIRDMAN (2014)
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Fox Searchlight, 119 minutes, R (language)
* * * * *

Wrap the Oscars for Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and perhaps Best Supporting Actress as well. Not since Synecdoche, New York (2008) have I seen a film this intelligent, provocative, and gloriously weird. At last––a film that's both playful and has a triple-digit IQ! See this one with friends as you'll be debating and discussing it for weeks to come.

The set up is deceptively simple: ageing actor Riggan Thomson(Michael Keaton) is directing a Broadway revival of a play based upon a Raymond Carver short story collection, What Do We Talk about When We Talk about Love. Riggan wants to change his image as the public knows him for one thing and one thing only: his blockbuster role as Birdman, a comic book superhero brought to the silver screen. Here we get a glimpse of what director Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Amores perroes) intends to do. This film is everything thing a summer blockbuster isn't: complicated, reflective, ambiguous, and magical in ways that originate in the mind, not in computer-generated f/x. Don't look for simple good guy/bad guy scenarios in Birdman, and pay no attention to promo labels such as "black comedy," as there's way more going on here.

Riggan needs a hit for more than his career–he's bombed in his marriage to his soul mate (Amy Ryan), has been a lousy father to daughter Sam (Emma Stone), is in the process of driving away girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough), drinks too much, and is slowly either going insane or being overwhelmed by real superpowers. If you needed a play for the Apocalypse, his adaptation of Raymond Carver would be it. Especially when his lead actor suffers an accident (or did he make it happen?) and Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) arrives the day before dress rehearsal. Mike might be a tortured genius, a total jerk, or Beelzebub. His creative destruction might be pushing Riggan to confront his demons, urge him to surrender to them, or push the poor sap over the edge. Similarly, Mike might be exactly what Sam needs to make her lose her self-destructive attitude, or he might be providing the ammunition for her to lock and load. He could be the force that turns Lesley (Naomi Watts) into a real actress, or he might just be a perverse satyr who can only get it up when he's on stage. He might be a font of wisdom, or maybe just a fountain of egoistic bullshit.

That's the thing about this film. It evokes Fight Club in the ways it subverts what we see. Or is it what we think we see? There's a sign on Riggan's dressing room mirror that says, "A thing is a thing, not what is said of the thing." Maybe. Watch Keaton's barroom dustup with Broadway critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) and get back to me. Check out Riggan's dialogues with his Birdman alter ego (or is it Carver?) and let me know. Can Riggan fly, or does he crash and burn? Can he act, or is he really just the hack he thinks he is. When he stands on the stage and says, "I don't exist," does he? 

This is a beautifully written film (Iñárritu, Nicholás Giacobone, Armando Bo, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr.) and Iñárritu's direction is more imaginative than any superhero film you've ever seen. Michael Keaton is a tour de force who must simultaneously assume the roles of possessed director, failed lover, ineffectual parent, tyrant, shaman, charlatan, and wounded self-doubter. (It's hard not to muse upon Robin Williams as we watch him.) Edward Norton is always wonderful and he's at his incendiary best in Birdman. Iñárritu chose well for a film framed around comic book superheroes. Keaton, of course, was Batman and he reduxes that voice for some of the film's creepier sequences. Norton, on the other hand, was Hulk and co-starred in Fight Club. Emma Stone also has a breakout performance in Birdman in a role that might well be titled Millennial Forced to Grow Up. In a stunning departure from usual American movie fare, all of the secondary actors are strong: Watts, Duncan, Ryan, Riseborough, and Zach Galifianakis as Jake, who might be Riggan's best friend or might be just another sycophant hoping to cash in.

Is a thing just a thing? You'll be arguing over this film's ending for quite some time—one that I confess originally left me dissatisfied until having lunch with three other people, one of whom had an interpretation I find compelling. Yes, it's that kind of film. It's already been honored at Venice, where it carried off several major awards, including the Golden Lion. I'm ready to anoint the film, Iñárritu, Keaton, Norton, and Stone.  

Rob Weir

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