by Jeff Klayman
I went with high anticipation to a screening of Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance last week. The advance press and reviews bordered on ecstatic, some “100” scores on Metacritic and elsewhere. What can I say? The film, directed by Alejandro Inarritu, failed to soar for me, and when it did get off the ground sporadically, I was always in fear it would crash into one of the Manhattan Broadway streets where the film is set.
This is not to imply in any way that there are no pleasures to be gleaned from this wonderfully whacky and frequently absurdist comedy about a successful Hollywood “franchise” star who, weary of being typecast, albeit fabulously wealthy, adapts, directs and stars in a stage version of Raymond Carver’s great short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
The titular Birdman, aka Riggan (no last name) is played to a delirious over-the-top hilt by a seemingly invigorated and energized Michael Keaton in what is perhaps his best role since Tim Burton’s 1988 masterwork, Beetlejuice. Keaton is supreme in displaying his unique persona of perpetually teetering-on-the edge madness, always threatening to lose control, then pulling back just enough only to go even further in the next scene. It is fitting that our first glimpse of Riggan is from behind, clad only in briefs, seated cross-legged in the traditional Yoga meditation pose, the slight catch being that he is levitating off the floor of his dismal dressing room backstage where his play is in rehearsal.
An easy to miss reference to Robert Downey, Jr. cements our conviction that for Riggan, Birdman is the albatross that Iron Man has become to the real-life star of that franchise. Keaton’s dressing room is dominated by a huge poster of the black-clad figure with a wing-span to rival Icarus of the Greek myth who soared, only to fly too close to the sun and come crashing back to Earth, his wings burned by the inferno. For this reviewer, Birdman came crashing down about half-way through its two-hour running time. Riggan rehearses, smokes, grabs a drink, smashes furniture and gets locked out of the theatre just before his entrance (a truly hilarious, innovative scene) etc., ad infinitum.
There is of course much back story: Emma Stone excels as Riggan’s daughter, Sam, from a failed marriage, now his ‘personal assistant.’ She manages to be touching and vulnerable in her messed-up, barely holding it together post drug-rehab existence, hanging on precariously, feet dangling over the theatre marquee as if she might end it all but still clinging to life. Ed Norton steals most of his scenes as Broadway bad-boy Mike, called in as a replacement to costar opposite Riggan. The scenes of them running lines together, then going off-script both in the play and in life are some of the film’s best moments.
So-what went wrong? Frankly, I’ve not a clue. By the end as Keaton’s Riggan is strutting up Broadway tethered for eternity to his splendidly plumed avatar, I had lost any love or concern for the hero and backstage dramas and shenanigans portrayed on screen. Once you’ve seen All About Eve, the GREAT backstage Broadway movie of all time, all the rest is sequel.