Saturday, December 27, 2014

All The World's A Stage, With Madness As Its Very Own

Michael Keaton, excellent in "Birdman", which is directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu.
  Fox Searchlight

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Saturday, December 27, 2014

"And did you get what you wanted from this life even so?"  This quote from Raymond Carver's "Late Fragment" elicits the answer, "to be beloved."  In this satire of love, madness, self-important live-wire celebrity and manic entertainment industry types, the comedy-drama "Birdman" thrives excellently -- the perfect, enthralling comic salute to insanity.

Modeled on Mr. Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love", director Alejandro G. Inarritu has replaced Carver's alcoholism with Riggan Thompson's (Michael Keaton) insanity.  Mr. Keaton's title character is the fictional film superhero Riggan once made millions playing.  Now a faded star, Riggan wades into theater with his own adaptation of Carver's aforementioned work, trying to perfect the play before its big debut night on Broadway at the St. James Theater. 

"Birdman" constantly distracts itself with its own inanity.  The voice of Birdman -- which not by accident sounds like Mr. Keaton's own Batman but mostly Charles Bukowski -- remains firmly in Riggan's head.  The film is delicately poised, deftly balanced on a tightrope of tension, frivolity and spontaneous eruptions.  Movie stardom has kept Riggan up in the clouds.  Like every actor however, Riggan fears exposure as a failure. 

Nakedness -- never mind its own various states and projections in "Birdman" -- is too hard for Riggan to bear.  "Birdman" hurls its characters into and out of the frame like pathetic sacrificial lambs.  But these lambs just can't help or save themselves.  They relish their disharmony, the very essence of their own need to engage in artificial, self-imposed drama.  They will do anything to be loved in order to stop hating themselves, even if it is for just five minutes.

The style and rigor of "Birdman", as crafted by Mr. Inarritu, is utterly self-conscious, even as all it depicts is ever vividly aware.  The film is a spectacular end-of-the-world maelstrom about the chaos, facade and farce of fame, the industry manufacturing it, the critics, roundtable interviewers, agents, managers, and you, the audience.  The screenplay is so dead-on target in every way.  The director is one of four writers who wrote every word.  Each word leaps off the screen from the actors' mouths in staccato mode.  Each voice competes with itself, and each other.  It's a calculated, cranky chorus of contradiction. 

Mr. Inarritu, who previously made films that pined to be loved by Oscar -- aka the derisively termed "Oscar bait" -- seems to satirize himself, too.  With "Birdman", he apparently says, "enough of the pretentious films I've made -- now I'll just show you what I really think and what I've observed about the crazy industry I've wallowed and stayed afloat in."  "Birdman" is the director's definitive statement.  It's a 180-degree turn from his prior work -- arguably a wholesale rebuke and renouncement of it.  Since his last film, initially released in the U.S. in 2009, Mr. Inarritu got really bold.  With "Birdman" he goes for broke.  Though satires of Hollywood ("The Player" and "Wag The Dog" are films that immediately come to mind) have been well-worn, this latest one is priceless, fresh and engaging.  There's never a dull moment.

Mr. Keaton is excellent playing at least three different characters and his awareness in, and of, each, is stunning.  In "Birdman" he wields theatricality in each in a medium (film) that often dwarfs and punishes it.  Mr. Keaton however, modulates theater so superbly on film through character that he's thoroughly and authentically compartmentalized as a discrete self.  It's brilliantly layered work.  You always seem to know which character Mr. Keaton is playing.  Yet sometimes all the characters he plays blur into one.  Mr. Keaton is an absolute show-stopper in "Birdman".  It's a performance he will win the Oscar for. 

As you watch Mr. Keaton act in "Birdman" you sense he is acting for his very life, both as an actor, and as an actor playing multiple characters.  He never wavers in quiet moments and farcical ones.  You need to see "Birdman" at least twice to capture and appreciate all the dialogue and background activity in it, such is its Hawksian break-neck pace.

The cynical "Birdman", one big sight gag comedy of human awkwardness, is smart enough not to direct you to which character Mr. Keaton is playing at any one time.  The film respects its audience but laughs loudly at them on occasion.  It's a funny, take-no-prisoners exercise that's breathlessly entertaining, as is Mr. Keaton's fine work in it.  Mr. Keaton's Riggan is a character whose aching desire to be loved fuels each role he takes on.  That need to be loved, arguably even more than his own need to love, is Riggan's common denominator, and our own.

"Look at me!" is our collective mantra.  It has been forever.  Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are its 21st century examples.  Love me!  Like me!  (Riggan even has a ready-made Twitter page, made by his estranged, drug-rehabbed daughter Sam, played by Emma Stone.)  Mr. Inarritu also plays on the idea of how culture, identity, existentialism and realism is validated or dismissed.  Sam (Ms. Stone) rants about Twitter as defining whether her dad Riggan is a real, existing being. 

Twitter is its own theater stage (and I too am on it, as are you, most likely.)  Twitter shrinks one to its own common denominator: characters.  One-hundred-and-forty of them, to be precise.  There's anonymity by great contrast in it.  Yet by some measure Twitter is a long way down from theater.  It can make actors, professional athletes, police officers, politicians and the rest of us, myself included, look like blithering idiots.  But Twitter can get infinitely more eyeballs at any given time. 

Maybe that's the sad point.  Is the medium really the message?  Or are we?  Or is it how we use the medium to convey the message?  Theater by contrast, shrinks an actor to her bare essence: being.  A character in action, unedited.  When, by the way, did Twitter overtake or compete with film or theater criticism?  Or the validity and vitality of the Broadway stage?  (A few years ago I was advised by a theater person that I shouldn't review a theater play because it might rankle its very sensitive actors.)

Naomi Watts, also terrific in "Birdman", directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu.  Fox Searchlight

The architectural symbol of "Birdman" driving its rhythmic discord, if you will, is the superbly rendered Antonio Sanchez drum solo score -- tidier than the wickedly amped fury of drumming in "Whiplash" -- the perfect heartbeat of the damaged creatures in "Birdman".  The film is pure percussive, from its opening scrambled-letter titles suggesting insanity and the craziness that is acting and being "someone else", to the majestic crescendo of ego-inflation.

There's solemnity even when "Birdman" is at its peak.  Characters are occasionally subdued but Mr. Inarritu's screenplay and his intuitive look inside the mad mind of a flailing superstar Hollywood actor's second life never are.  "Birdman" breaks the fourth wall of its own chaos but never breaks its own fourth wall as cinema.  For all its energy, detail and character idiosyncrasy "Birdman" is an extraordinarily well-contained view inside the bubble of a small, trivial world.  The containment and discipline is a tribute to its director, who gives "Birdman" its rugged, dispassionate cadence.  Each scene is punctuated by a punchline that launches into the next.

Yet intentionally or otherwise, "Birdman" is remarkably shallow.  It decidedly avoids plunging into other areas and issues where it could, such as why, for example, many actors, aside from anonymity's and ethnicity identification's sake, choose to change their names.  (Mr. Keaton's real name is Michael Douglas.  Did he change it so as not to create name confusion?  Would anyone ever confuse Mr. Douglas and Mr. Keaton?)

Not only is "Birdman" a satire about vanity, madness and the prickly self-consciousness of actors, writers, critics, journalists and the American entertainment industry, it is a satire about the image of image.  Every sensational, sometimes irritating camera movement by the masterful Emmanuel Lubezki is a tunnel vision look into the insularity and insecurity of deeply insecure beings, a clever documenting of anthropology and self-loathing.  The frenzy of the camera's jagged ballet offers minimalist glances at the hyperbolized, self-involved dramas.  Often other characters dominate the frame when Riggan is in it, suggesting a pecking into his subconscious.

Mr. Lubezki's camera moves are that of the Birdman character swooping through the halls of theater with utter contempt and disdain for it and its participants.  "Birdman" is fueled from Birdman's perspective of the miserable, lonely, superficial beings desperately wanting to be liked and loved in life through their acting if nothing else.  These gifted lot are gifted, brilliant train wrecks.  The stage is their only genuine chance to be real. 

Realism is projected memorably throughout "Birdman", with varying deconstructions and formats of camera, monitors, rehearsal, fantasy, levels of audience voyeurism online and on stage and in the streets of Times Square.  The point is, Riggan always exists.  He's so depressed and deluded he may not realize it.  He always lives reality in a fantasy context.  Offstage, Riggan rarely if ever disengages the persona and wonderment of his movie role.  The only ones doubting his bona fide existence and reemergence as an actor are Sam, Birdman and a stubborn New York Times theater critic (well-played by Lindsay Duncan), a likely hybrid of film critic Pauline Kael and current Times theater critic Ben Brantley.

"Birdman" is also about a cock fight between Broadway and Hollywood and which will endure.  With Hollywood big studios narrowing to tentpole film releases, Tinseltown is on its way down.  (Television can already attest to that as the medium to be seen in.)  Theater, "Birdman" suggests, is still, and will remain, very much alive, as will its people.  Even if some of those people are as vain and empty as some of those on the silver screen.

The film showcases a clash of id and superegos, and Riggan's ego -- at least egowise -- is much larger than that of Mike Shiner (an excellent Edward Norton, playing his offscreen self flawlessly), the arrogant megastar of Broadway thespians.  Mr. Norton has the lion's share of his screen scenes with Mr. Keaton and always outshines him.  Mr. Norton is the immovable force and cad of "Birdman": confident, relentless, biting and bruising.  A prime horse's ass, but your lovable, irrefutable horse's ass.  He exists because you exist to adore and worship him.  "The critics want to spooge on him," someone says.  "All over his face," another adds.

In "Birdman" and outside it the audience is its own stage.  We as an audience love to validate an actor's existence and their excellence, and, oftentimes, just their existence.  But is it really excellence or celebrity that we are validating?  A woman approaches Riggan, saying she loves him from the "Birdman" movies.  She never once mentions Riggan's triple-threat status on the Broadway stage.

It must be said: Angela Riseborough and Naomi Watts who play roles in Riggan's production of Carver, are great, as is Zach Galifianakis as Riggan's manager.  Ms. Watts' character asks "why don't I have any self-respect?"  The answer gets a guaranteed laugh.  (Ms. Watts has some funny scenes with Mr. Norton here, who starred together in very serious "The Painted Veil" eight years ago.)  Amy Ryan offers the lone sane counterpoint in "Birdman" as Riggan's ex-wife, who tries to ground him into responsibility and reality.

A quote from someone encapsulates the being of "Birdman": "a thing is a thing, not what is said about the thing."  Yet all of these poor, desperate, anarchical souls fail to see that.  The quote, tucked in the corner of a mirror, stares Riggan in the face.  All of these vain, neurotic busy-bodies don't ever see anything but the mirrors they project of themselves.  They are too busy mocking and flagellating each other and piercing the veneer of their fragility with venom, pettiness and relentless self-absorption.  Each of them desperately cries, hark!, behold! for I am the stage!  Mr. Inarritu gladly cedes it to them.

One funny moment you may miss if you blink twice is Spider-Man playfully sparring on stage in slow-motion amidst a drumline band.  I couldn't help but think of the Hollywood film/comic-book merger with the stage with "Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark", an infamous production which haplessly spiraled into extinction on Broadway not long ago.  It offers proof that oil and water don't mix. 

"Birdman" is cheeky and carefully considered, and Mr. Inarritu, whose middle name Gonzalez, is, in this film's credits at least, either by choice or satirical rendering, abbreviated to a single initial.  Mr. Inarritu wants to cut to the chase and cut the proverbial mustard.  He's had enough first-hand experience seeing the tortuous engines of Hollywood turn and roar.  I suspect "Birdman" has percolated within Mr. Inarritu for some time.  After his prior film work -- for reasons I won't list here, in hindsight, and with wiser eyes, I, for several years have regretted hailing "Babel" the best film of 2006 -- Mr. Inarritu surely had a regurgitation moment and purged his spleen.  With "Birdman" he upchucks so very well.

Also with: Merritt Wever, Jeremy Shamos, Bill Camp.

"Birdman" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence.  The film's running time is one hour and 59 minutes. 

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