Thursday, October 30, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) - 3 stars

Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is a washed up Hollywood actor.  He played the superhero Birdman but walked away from the franchise after three movies.  Now he’s trying to reinvent his career by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. 

The movie takes place over a few days while the play is in previews.  When a cast member is injured, he brings in the famous method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who Riggan can’t stand.  He’s also dealing with his girlfriend who may be pregnant, his high strung agent (Zach Galifianakis), and his daughter (Emma Stone), who resents him for being an absent father most of her life.

There are a lot of things I liked about this movie, most of all Michael Keaton’s performance.  He’s appeared in some supporting roles over the years, but this is the first big starring role he’s had in years.  And he’s great in this movie.  He has a lot of emotions he gets to play.  Sometimes he talks to himself, and this is portrayed by his Birdman character talking to him.  Sometimes we just hear the voice, sometimes Birdman appears in the scene with Riggan.  It could easily look ridiculous, seeing him having a serious conversation with a guy in a bird costume.  But Michael Keaton pulls it off.

I also liked the behind the scenes stuff.  Most of the action in the movie takes place in the dressing rooms or backstage, so we get to see a lot of the actors walking around the sets and rehearsing the play.  The fights between Riggan and Mike were also pretty funny.  Mike is such a method actor that if he’s drinking in a scene, there better be real alcohol in his glass.  If Riggan points a gun at him in a scene, he better not be able to tell it’s a plastic gun.

I did have some reservations though.  For one thing, the movie is shot in such a way that it looks like it’s all one take.  It was actually a bunch of long takes cut together, but those shots sometimes get tiring.  We’ll be in the dressing room with Riggan, then he walks out into the hallway and the camera follows him through the hallways.  Then we might pass by Mike walking the other direction and the camera will start following him.  It will stay with Mike as he enters another room and starts talking to someone else.

This is all very cool, but after a while it distracted from the story.  It feels too much like the director was trying to show off and cover for the lack of plot.  There’s enough plot for a 90 minute movie, but this was just over two hours, and it could have been shorter.  I got bored a few times, and I was ready for the movie to end at least 20 minutes before it did.

Also, I think the movie was made to be really grand and dramatic.  The music, camera angles, and the stuff that happens at the end is supposed to be really emotionally impactful, and it didn’t have that effect on me.  The movie is nowhere near as deep as it’s trying to be, and I wish the director hadn’t tried so hard to make it so big.  I think the word I’m looking for here is pretentious.  I guess in the end, the movie just left me cold.

It’s a close call, but I’m still recommending the movie despite my reservations.  It’s original and interesting, and Michael Keaton’s performance is enough to make it worth watching.

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