Saturday, November 1, 2014

Up in the Air: Birdman

In Birdman or The Unexpected Virture of Ignorance Iñárritu makes nifty commentary about the illusory nature of cinema and stage drama as well as about the power of social media to diminish anyone’s talent – when anyone can be a star on YouTube and any trivial thing can be more popular than legitimate theater. Meanwhile, his following shots down dingy, narrow backstage corridors capture the unseen shabbiness behind the façade of playacting. Raucous, unnerving, sometimes irritating drums accompany the frantic passage down those hallways of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a has-been actor who made a name for himself playing a superhero called Birdman and who is now trying to make an artistic comeback by staging an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story, employing, as an audience draw, an incorrigibly egotistical stage star, played brilliantly by Edward Norton, whose penchant for realism goes to the extent of drinking real alcohol and showing a real erection on stage. Another strong supporting performance comes from Emma Stone as Riggan’s lost, in-and-out-of-rehab daughter, and she gets the credit for one of the best moments in the film when she shows her father the power of that little iPhone screen we all carry or would like to carry. Keaton does a fine job as the desperate, fading performer; like Riggan, Keaton is attempting his own comeback in films these days. Keaton’s Birdman voiceover, in a deep, raspy tone imitating The Dark Knight, is, however, mostly as irritating as the drum score. I like many of the individual parts of this film, but the plummeting, fiery asteroid; the dead, beached jellyfish; the pointed commentary about the world of theater – especially the moment in which Riggan enters the theater in his underwear, just in time to enter his scene through the audience – all of this is meant to be brilliant, sometimes forced to be brilliant, and that’s what makes me feel indifferent about this film, that it’s all so deliberate about saying something without making you feel anything, like all the bits in which Riggan’s Birdman persona intrudes upon his real life with demonstrations of telekinesis and flight that are sometimes startling but ultimately “full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing.”

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