By William Wolf


Michael Keaton has a great performance showcase in this film that was a highlight of the 2014 New York Film Festival. He is outstanding with his all-consuming portrayal of Riggan Thomson, an actor who has been a famous movie star in “Birdman” films but wants to define his legacy by making it as a serious actor in a Broadway play. When we first meet him from a rear view he appears to be levitated in a seated position in a theater dressing room. That immediately telegraphs a supernatural aspect to the film otherwise grounded in the reality of an actor wracked by mental torment.

Rest assured that director Alejandro G. Iñárritu will include fantasy “Birdman” sequences along the way to add another dimension and provide visual pleasure. They are wrapped around the decision of Thomson to stage a play based on Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” putting the film in the category of a backstage drama, but with a special twist.

Keaton gets plenty of opportunity to chew the scenery with his emotional outbursts on stage and off, and he has a dynamic partner in the performance of Edward Norton as Mike, a hot-shot actor engaged at the last moment as a replacement on the advice of Thomson’s actress friend (Naomi Watts), who has a a scene under a sheet with Mike, who attempts to have sex with her while on stage. Mike is a born seducer.

The film flips back and forth between stage and real life, but Thomson is increasingly blending the two, and having out-of-body head experiences revealing how screwed up he is as his career and mental state loom rooted all-or-nothing to the success of the play.

Meanwhile, his rebellious daughter Sam, saucily played by Emma Stone, is estranged from her dad, and the plotting works toward bringing them closer. Sam is attracted to Mike, and they have some meaningful, charismatic scenes together. Also on the scene is Zach Galifianakis as Thomson’s frantic producer who needs to deal with all of the moment-to-moment upheavals.

There is a very unlikely bar scene in which Lindsay Duncan as a powerful critic tells Thomson before she even sees the play that she is going to destroy it, seemingly out of resentment that Hollywood types will try to make an impression on Broadway. But the encounter unhinges Thomson and drives him to the bottle. With an onstage suicide in the play by the actor he portrays, there are tense concerns about grim possibilities. Others important in the cast include Andrea Riseborough and Amy Adams.

A formidable design job has been done, with shots of the Broadway area surrounding the theater action creating an authentic atmosphere that also anchors the fantasy sequences. Apart from Keaton’s flamboyant performance, this is definitely a director’s show. Iñárratu co-wrote the screenplay with three others Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo, yet there is a clear basic concept.

However, I don’t much care for the final resolution. There is a point at which an ending would have seemed a natural conclusion, yet the envelope is pushed yet again to spoil the satisfactory effect. The director doesn’t know when to let well enough alone, but until then “Birdman” is one wildly entertaining trip. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. Reviewed October 12, 2014.


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