Birdman

Rating:

FLY AWAY HOME

Main Cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton

Director: Alejandro Inarritu

Helen Hayes Theatre by Andreas Praefcke

You win, Helen Hayes Theatre. This time.

Our opening on Broadway of my new show, Blame a Flea  (the most recent title change necessitated by our haste in assembling the marquee and the sign company being out of a few key consonants), did not go as all of us at Star Is Born productions had hoped.  We were on a very tight timeline in order to get my mega musical mounting of Dames at Sea open and in front of the New York critics before that other production could steal our thunder.  With only a few days, we had to skip the usual try out process with multiple preview performances and we determined our best option was to open cold with an exciting and show stopping production the likes of which Broadway has not seen for several decades.  Jake Breaks, my technical gurus, worked four days solid turning our abandoned garage into a convincing battleship, even having a poop deck trucked in from over at the Navy Pier somewhere.  I, for my part, recruited dozens of eager young tappers from the 3 PM class at the Broadway Dance Center in order to give our audiences that rip roaring Busby Berkeley spectacular production feel that they so richly deserve.

This afternoon, we were all prepared for our gala opening: catering from The Olive Garden down the street, little gift bags with ‘M & Ms from MNM’ in our show colors of red, white and glorious cobalt blue, Mrs. Tuttle’s tapping tots doing coordinated time steps complete with little confetti guns exploding red white and blue sparkles out of their head dresses on every down beat.  I and the cast were upstairs doing some last minute fixes on my big second act tap number, I’m the Greatest Star Tar; we had just gotten to the second tap break with all forty seven of us pounding away in rhythm when we set up some sort of harmonic wave that fatally weakened one of the central support pillars and, before we knew what was happening, the entire west façade of our performance space collapsed on itself.  Plaster dust, zuppe toscano, M & Ms, glittering head dresses, and a few seals borrowed from the Bronx zoo for the dream ballet were soon raining down on the crowd of eager first nighters whom had begun to assemble below.  Fortunately, no one was seriously injured although Sally Kirkland was threatening me with the dry cleaning bill for her well-worn Ungaro as she hailed a taxi.

Needless to say, our opening has been indefinitely postponed and we will have to concede the first Broadway production of Dames at Sea to that other production company over at the Helen Hayes.  Normy and I, after hours of dealing with police, building inspectors, irate patrons, shrieking tapping tot mothers and the like, finally dragged ourselves back to our hotel room where we raided the mini bar for anything over 80 proof.  The Helen Hayes Theater being somewhat on my mind, we opted to sit down with last year’s Academy Award winner for best picture, Birdman, a film which takes place pretty much within the confines of that august play space.  We popped it in to our portable DVD player for a look.

Birdman is one of those small scale elliptical dramas beloved by the academy at awards time.  If it had been made in the 90s, it would have borne the Miramax label.  In this century, it’s a 20th Century Fox production through its Fox Searchlight boutique label in conjunction with Regency pictures.  The film is the brainchild of Mexican wunderkind Alejandro Inarritu, who first came to attention fifteen years ago with Amores Perros and who came to Hollywood with films such as Babel and 21 Grams.  He conceived of Birdman as a comedy and while it has comedic elements, it’s much more a thought provoking drama about the interplay of art and commerce in the world of theater and film.  It’s the sort of film that mixes the hyperrealism of the theatrical experience, enhanced by the decision to film each scene in one long continuous take with swooping camera movements through the labyrinth of backstage, with the magic realism of a mind in turmoil.

Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, a Hollywood star best known for a series of comic book action blockbusters in which he played a costumed superhero known as Birdman.  His star has dimmed and he has staked what remains of his money and his reputation on a Broadway outing as writer/director/star of a drama based on Raymond Carver’s story ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’.  Previews are set to begin and things are not going well.  He’s fighting with his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), his best friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) is starting to lose faith and his costar (Jeremy Shamos) isn’t up to the demands of the show.  Riggan spends a lot of time alone and full of self-doubt, deep in angry conversation with his Birdman alter ego and he seems to have, from the very first establishing shot, some supernatural abilities when in this state.  When a stage light falls on the costar at a dress rehearsal, literally knocking him out of the production, hot young Broadway actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) is brought in as a replacement.  Mike is talented, but an enfant terrible, stirring up trouble amongst the on and off stage family necessary to bring the show to a successful opening.  Will Riggan triumph or will the critics vilify him as a hack trying to turn celebrity into talent and failing dismally.  The latter seems all but certain when the all-important New York Times reviewer (Lindsay Duncan), tired of Hollywood stars trying to legitimize themselves with inappropriate theatrical excursions, vows to crucify him no matter what appears on the stage.  Things do not turn out the way one might expect including an ending that everyone is likely to interpret each in his or her own way.

I quite liked the film for the excellent performances from Keaton (whose career is finally having a much deserved renaissance) and Norton and to a lesser extent, Miss Stone.  They each bring a complex character to life and are required to triumph in a variety of acting styles as the film goes back and forth from the backstage to the onstage world of Raymond Carver.  The scenes between Keaton and Stone in particular are quite good and hint at whole worlds of unexpressed emotion and make us want to know much more about both the histories and interior lives of these people.   They are well served by an excellent supporting cast, an intelligent script (also by Inarritu with several collaborators) and a jazz drum infused score which works wonderfully well with all of the up and down corridor and stairwell tracking shots used to give the film its all of a piece feel.

The flaws are mainly in two areas.  It is entirely unclear if the play within the film is a strong work of art or not.  We see glimpses and scenes, but we don’t really know if it’s supposed to be a minor masterpiece or an over the top piece of trash and what we do see of it could be interpreted either way.  This is likely a deliberate choice but this ambiguity can completely change the meaning of the film, depending on what the viewer makes of it.  Similarly, the telekinesis and levitation that Keaton may or may not be capable of renders the film very different depending on one’s acceptance of the level of reality of the events.  I like to know the rules of the world a film asks me to inhabit.

By all means, see the film.  It showcases fine film making for intelligent adults and great performances, great direction and great writing.  Just expect to scratch your head and think about it for several days after.

Lotus pose.  Poster smashing.  Underwear wrestling.  Gratuitous Edward Norton butt.  Gratuitous Edward Norton erection.  Exploding wig.  Neon signage. Unfortunate locked doors. Prop guns. Bird on toilet.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction, visit her entire back catalog and follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/missvickilester

photo by Andreas Praefcke

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