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Review: 'Birdman,' the fake one-take Michael Keaton vehicle, is seriously goofy

Michael Keaton plays a desperate actor who once starred in a comic book franchise in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's fake one-take satire "Birdman."

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton put 'em up in the Hollywood/Broadway satire "Birdman." Credit: Fox Searchlight Michael Keaton and Edward Norton put 'em up in the Hollywood/Broadway satire "Birdman."
Credit: Fox Searchlight

‘Birdman’
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Stars: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

“Birdman” is a playful, freewheeling, lightfooted lark by one of cinema’s heaviest directors. The latest from “Babel”’s Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu seems to have earthquaking intentions. It’s yet another Hollywood satire, this one more uncomfortable than most: Its star is Michael Keaton, playing — get this — a fading actor who once headlined a comic book franchise about a winged superhero. And it’s all done in a single, transparently faked single take — as though Inarritu saw his fellow countryman Alfonso Cuaron (“Children of Men,” “Gravity”) and raised him 200 times over. (Technically it’s two “takes,” plus a pair of silly, ominous montages involving flaming objects in the sky and dead jellyfish. But who’s counting?)

This should be serious, self-pitying and technically show-offy. Instead it’s semi-serious, and more often goofy. It even mocks and downplays its pretentious. For one thing, Keaton’s Riggan Thomson (now, that's an invented name) is clearly trying too hard to be respected. He’s about to debut, on Broadway, an ambitious adaptation of a Raymond Carver’s story collection “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” that he directed, wrote and stars in. That’s some balls, and it’s made worse when on the day of the first preview one of the actors, whom Thomson doesn’t like, is “accidentally” greeted with a spotlight to the head.

Emma Stone (with Edward Norton) plays Michael Keaton's just-out-of-rehab daughter in "Birdman." Credit: Fox Searchlight Emma Stone (with Edward Norton) plays Michael Keaton's just-out-of-rehab daughter in "Birdman."
Credit: Fox Searchlight

Luckily, one of his stars, Lesley (Naomi Watts), is dating and has been running lines with her crazy method actor boyfriend, Mike (Edward Norton), who’s free and willing to bring his untamed, sometimes combative theater beliefs to bear as a last-minute pinch hitter. To add more headaches, Thomson has been sleeping with the fourth castmember, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), and also hired as his stressed-out personal assistant Sam (Emma Stone), his cynical, just-out-of-rehab daughter.

This chaos is captured in the headline-grabbing fake “single take.” Ever-heroic cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera has few big show-off moments, like the one in “Children of Men” (which, heh, he also lensed) that captures a multi-vehicle assault entirely from within a moving car. He tends to prowl after people or switch to someone else midstream a la Richard Linklater’s “Slacker.” Conversations either circle the players endlessly or push in awkwardly close. (If he gets too close, you know they’re about to make out.)

Long takes are both overrated and undeservedly hated. There’s nothing wrong with visual pleasure, and long takes are a good, easy (yet unbelievably, painstakingly, impressively hard) way to create it. A single take is appropriate for a movie that’s actually a backstage theater film — a Hollywood raspberry that takes place entirely on Broadway (or, sometimes, in the mind of someone occupying same). Though the action shifts in time or into fantasies, the illusion of a constantly running camera simulates the grind of always being on when one’s performing on a stage. That this “take” is more or less openly fake — you can spot the cuts about as well as you can in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” — also helps dial down the pretention. It’s knows we know this isn’t a real single shot — that it didn’t just pan from Mike vigorously necking with Sam down to the stage, on which Mike stands. It’s not trying to trick you; it’s just having fun.

Michael Keaton confers with Naomi Watts and Zach Galifianakis in "Birdman." Credit: Fox Searchlight Michael Keaton confers with Naomi Watts and Zach Galifianakis in "Birdman."
Credit: Fox Searchlight

And “Birdman” is a lot of fun. Perhaps it might have seemed the director of “Biutiful” — which kept piling misery upon misery, as though it was a comedy of terror — would turn an examination of one fallen A-lister’s attempted comeback into a cry of anguish. But he uses the pain much the way John Cassavetes did the anguish in “Love Streams”: as a way of anchoring a chaotic, often very funny comedy-drama that’s much more on the former side.

Keaton isn’t the old manic Keaton — the motormouth maniac of “Night Shift” and “Beetlejuice.” But nor is he the brooding Bruce Wayne/Batman. His melancholy manifests itself in antsiness, though he’s really the nervous center of a gallery of grotesques. Norton’s actor hellion mostly walks off with the picture, but Riseborough and Galifianakis — flummoxed this time, as though he was playing someone who had to put with the likes of Galifianakis in “The Hangover”s — each put in good jabs. Everyone’s encouraged to be on their toes and improvising, and the whole production is a series of jazzy dances, often to the drum-only score by Antonio Sanchez, which keeps changing the rhythm, throwing us and the actors off. (It’s also the kind of film that occasionally catches the real Sanchez, pounding away on the score, in corners or cubbyholes.)

None of this makes “Birdman” particularly deep, and it’s not as assured in its Inside Baseball meta business as Olivier Assayas’ slightly similar “Clouds of Sils Maria,” in which Juliette Binoche plays an aging actress and Kristen Stewart her celeb gossip-mocking p.a. It's not clear if Inarritu is even trying to be profund, which is strange: His previous films are some of the most pompously faux-deep in existence. Perhaps he does think this is all very astute; perhaps he's sincere about surrounding Thomson with cliches (a disappointed daughter, ex-wife and current girlfriend). Maybe he really thinks he's sticking it to critics by including a moldy stereotype:joyless, vengeful critic (Lindsay Duncan) who exists to be told her kind aren’t as good as the artists they write about. It's a good thing "Birdman" is charming and nutty, even if it wound up that way by accident.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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