fbook icon 60Film Review: ‘Birdman’

Birdman poster.jpg 

‘Birdman’ is an exhausting film - a helter-skelter journey inside a Broadway production in the lead-up to opening night. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has cleverly constructed his movie to seem like one continuous take. We literally follow the characters through the bowels of a New York theatre, onto the stage, and out the doors into West 44th Street where ‘Phantom of the Opera’ is playing just across the road. The director doesn’t allow us a chance to catch our breath, and before we know it, we’re enmeshed in the dysfunctional yet intriguing lives of the characters.

I’ve never been a Michael Keaton fan but his performance in ‘Birdman’ totally won me over. He’s amazing as Riggan Thomson, a film actor who became famous playing a super-hero called ‘Birdman’ (shades of Keaton’s own fame as Tim Burton’s Batman). Now Thomson is trying to prove that he’s much more than a has-been celebrity. So he’s adapted a Raymond Carver story for the stage. He’s also directing the play and taking the lead role. With all that on his plate, plus a difficult cast and a daughter (Emma Stone) who’s a recovering drug addict, it’s not surprising that Thomson appears to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Among other things, he hallucinates that he can move objects by telekinesis (or maybe he can really do it). And inside his head he can hear the voice of his alter ego (or nemesis), Birdman, egging him on.

One of my favourite actors, Edward Norton is reunited with Naomi Watts, his leading lady from ‘The Painted Veil’, but the parts they play in ‘Birdman’ are as removed from their romantic characters in the Somerset Maugham story as they could possibly be. Norton is mesmerising (and incredibly funny) as Mike Shiner, an über-talented and egotistical actor who wants everything his own way, even to the extent of rewriting the dialogue – his and everyone else’s. Naomi Watts is an insecure actress making her Broadway debut and trying to escape Mike’s libidinous attentions.

Be prepared for an abundance of in-jokes, name-dropping and theatre talk. Director Inarritu has a dig at Method actors in the guise of Edward Norton’s character, and at critics in two scenes involving an influential reviewer played impeccably by another of my favourites, British actress Lindsay Duncan.

In May 2014, when I reviewed ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, I made a rather rash, long-range forecast that it would win the Oscar for Best Picture*. Now I’m not so sure. Both films are clever, funny and innovative, yet each pays its dues to Hollywood traditions in its own unique way. In ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ it’s the 1930s movies of Lubitsch and Co, set in a mythical Middle Europe; in ‘Birdman’, it’s the dark super-heroes of recent decades.

If either of these outstanding films wins the golden figurine, I’ll be happy, but if I had to make a choice between them, it would be the decorative and stylish confection with a dark centre – ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’.

A warning: There are some graphic scenes in ‘Birdman’ and equally graphic language.

* This week 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' won a Golden Globe Award for Best Picture - Comedy or Musical.

Deborah O’Brien

23 January, 2015