The Watchers

The Watchers

Monday, 5 January 2015

Review: Birdman (UK Cert 15)

Riggan Thomson used to be in pictures. He used to be big. He used to be Birdman. Wanting to reinvent himself, Riggan writes, directs and stars in a Broadway show based on the Raymond Carver story 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love'. However, he has to deal with volatile actors, ex- and current lovers and his fractious relationship with his daughter as the clock counts down to opening night.

I've been divided over Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's previous films. Despite the rather heavy philosophical air of the piece, 21 Grams had some brilliant performances, but I found Babel an indulgent and utterly pretentious mess. I wasn't sure what to expect from Birdman, but luckily Inarritu has mostly reined in the indulgence (a few bizarre moments of whimsy notwithstanding) and has crafted a hyper-real character piece which is absorbing to watch.

Michael Keaton gives a career-best performance as Riggan. Struggling with his various crises, whilst being pursued by the inner voice of Birdman deriding his current choices, Keaton is excellent. Riggan could have been an overindulged child, a pretentious auteur whose neuroses run puddle-deep, but Keaton gives the character gravitas and a certain amount of dignity (even when running through Times Square in just his underwear at one point). 

Edward Norton is great as temperamental method actor Mike Shiner, who comes into Riggan's play as a last-minute replacement and shakes things up. He's an insufferable asshole on occasions, but Norton riffs on it (along with his own reputation of being 'difficult') to great effect. Emma Stone is similarly great as Riggan's daughter Sam, a recovering addict who acts as her father's assistant. She gets some lovely scenes with Norton as a nascent relationship between Mike and Sam forms, and gets a brilliant moment when, in a rage, she tells Riggan he doesn't matter. Stone really sells the anger and the pent-up fury of that moment and it doesn't feel fake.

Amy Ryan adds a dose of calm reality to proceedings as Riggan's ex-wife Sylvia, appearing in a couple of key scenes (most notably when she reminds him he's 'not Farrah Fawcett'). Naomi Watts' performance is great as an actress ready to make her Broadway debut yet nervous of it at the same time. She has a particularly great scene with Andrea Riseborough (who plays Riggan's current girlfriend) in which one of the funnies lines of the film is given. Lindsay Duncan gives a nice supporting turn as influential theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson, who threatens to bury Riggan's play with a bad review. There's a surprisingly dramatic turn by Zach Galifianakis, proving he can do so much more than his Hangover persona, as Riggan's lawyer Jake, desperately trying to keep everything from falling to pieces.

The way the film is shot is particularly good and credit must go to Inarritu and his cinematographer, the brilliant Emmanuel Lubezki, for that. The play is mostly set within the labyrinthine corridors of the St James Theatre (with occasional excursions outside the theatre and onto the street) and there's some very clever camera trickery at work to make it look as if the film was shot in one continuous take. The camera follows characters into dressing rooms then follows another one out of it. It looks good and really maintains the flow of the piece.

The script takes potshots at the current vogue for superhero movies which is a bit of an easy target, but there's something quite satisfying about having an actor who did comicbook movies before they were de rigeur criticising it. The casting of Keaton, Norton and Stone (aka Bruce Wayne/Batman, Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk and Gwen Stacy) adds an extra level. It does make it all a bit meta, but it's enjoyable enough.

It's got a strong script, great performances to a man and cleverly shot. So why am I not shouting from the rafters? My main problem with the film is the ending. It's difficult to discuss without spoiling things, so all I'll say is this. The ending is ambiguous but it just seems done for the sake of it. No doubt there will be people ready to queue up and say I've either missed the entire point of the film or that I've wilfully misunderstood the director's intentions... if that's the case, so be it, but I judge what I see on the screen and how it makes me feel and the ending of Birdman left me cold and disconnected.

If the film had stopped just a few minutes earlier, it would have got a 5-star review. But the very end of the film just feels ambiguous for ambiguity's sake and undermined the sterling work of the previous two hours. Still very much worth seeing, though, but a disappointment.

Rating: 4 out of 5


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