Surrealistic Plot, Great Acting In ‘Birdman’


Occasionally I get stumped when trying to evaluate a movie. That was the case with Birdman, an interesting film that gets dragged down by a lot of surrealism and third-rate symbolism. And that is a shame, because the basic story is one of those really fun “putting on a Broadway show is a real challenge” kind of stories. With a good cast and a remarkable performance by the star, it has an intriguing charm. Then the mumbo jumbo starts and interferes with everything.

Riggan (Michael Keaton) is an actor who turned down Birdman 4, a really awful knockoff of his three previous films, and essentially disappeared from the celebrity circuit. Note, by the way, that Keaton turned down the third Batman movie 20 years ago. At any rate, decades after he left stardom, he is returning to Broadway as the writer, director and star of a Raymond Carver play What We Say When We Talk About Love. Just about everything he has is tied up in the production, which he views as a chance to redeem himself as a performer.

Right from the start, he has problems. An actor is injured by a falling light, and he winds up hiring Mike (Edward Norton), a method actor who is a Broadway favorite because he’s both available and the boyfriend of Lesley (Naomi Watts), one of the stars of the show. Unfortunately, he is also a bully and more than a bit nuts. He demonstrates by trying to rape her on stage; it seems away from the stage he has real performance problems.

There are all sorts of problems as every one of the previews has its own failings. Riggin has a sexual relationship going with Lisa (Andrea Riseborough), another one of the actresses. His daughter Sam (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab, is disconnected from him, and he still probably loves his ex-wife Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan). His best friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis) is more than a bit freaked out by everything going on. And there is a really nasty critic named Sylvia (Amy Ryan), who hates Hollywood people and whose reviews are the key to success or failure. Riggan has to navigate all of these pitfalls.

To add to the fun, director Alejandro González Iñárritu shows the star as having superpowers. He can fly like the “birdman” he was, and he can do telekinesis, moving things with his mind. Or is he just nuts and thinks he can do it? That is never revealed. We see him flying through Manhattan, but then there’s a cab driver chasing after him? Was it in his mind? In the opening shot, he seems to be levitating in air while meditating. The point behind all of that? I have no idea. If he’s crazy, well, he’s already displayed that behavior. If he is a real superhero, why not just do that?

The acting is good, although centered mostly on Riggan. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki keeps the camera moving as action flows, which is a neat trick, but does not move the plot. Keaton, however, is really good as the stressed-out Thomson. In a year with a lot of great acting performances, his is good enough to demand attention as a contender. Most of the rest of the cast is also good, although quite a few have relatively little to do. Galifianakis basically disappears. Duncan is good when she’s around, but only shows up for two or three short scenes.

The best of the supporting cast are Norton and Stone. Norton plays the half-crazed bully very well; he’s done it in several movies and has a reputation that hints he may be as difficult as the actor he portrays in the film. Yet, he also makes the man interesting, particularly in his relationship with Stone. In a wonderful scene on the roof of the theater, he asks the girl how her father mistreated her, and all she can answer is that he was often not around and worked hard to make her feel special. And Stone lights up the screen every time she appears. Ryan was particularly effective in the two scenes she was in.

I enjoyed the movie and might have liked it even better if every once in a while we did not have that nonsensical possibility of possible Superman. My advice to the director: Stick to a good plot and stop trying to be a modern-day Ingmar Bergman.

This is a pretty good movie, but in a season where there are lot of excellent ones, there are better choices. I will want to see it again, but probably only when it shows up on television. Then again, those performances were marvelous.