November, 2014, Drama

 The much-publicized (and over-lauded) Interstellar recently challenged audiences to explore the possibilities of human existence freed from the concepts of time, distance and the composition of the cosmos. In that film, “big-idea” director Christopher Nolan and an army of brilliant special cinematic technicians plucked Matthew McConaughey out of an Iowa cornfield and propelled him into a fantastic blend of cosmology and science fiction. Now comes the gifted Mexican writer/director Alejandro Iñárritu (Buitiful, Babel, AmoresPerros) who invites audiences to do the exact opposite – delve deeply into the “reality” humans can invent without leaving the confines of their own skulls.

Riggan Thomson, a washed-up movie star famous for his recurring role as “The Birdman” in a series of commercially successful science fiction movies, tries to make a financial and artistic comeback by adapting and starring in a Broadway play based upon a Raymond Carver short story. Mocked by his drug-addicted personal assistant/daughter (Emma Stone), burdened by the neediness of his female lead (Naomi Watts) and confounded by the arrogant attacks of a co-star (Ed Norton) who seems intent on torpedoing the project, Riggan teeters on and finally succumbs to a voice in his head which insists he’s morphed from being Riggan the man into Birdman the legend.

Shot in a series of long, uninterrupted takes which convey the claustrophobic atmosphere of legitimate theater and immeasurably enhanced by a script co-written by Iñárritu, Birdman gives Stone and Norton their best roles in years - - but it’s Michael Keaton as Riggan who delivers a performance of his career playing a character bearing an apparently uncomfortable resemblance to the actor himself.

The director and his cast enjoy savaging many aspects of their art: the dizzying silliness of celebrity, the self-absorption of method acting, the low expectations of “preview” audiences and most brilliantly, the pomposity of big-budget Hollywood movies blatantly purporting to be more than are.  It’s in this last dimension that Iñárritu’s modestly financed, intriguingly written and incisively-acted satiric drama achieves what Nolan’s overlong and rather ponderous Interstellar failed to do: fashion the elements of a fiction film into real insights about the contradictory, flawed and mysterious phenomenon we call  life.

The Verdict? Vulgar, vital and endlessly intriguing…but not for the casual moviegoer.



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