The Cape Escape
Michael Keaton gives a career- best turn as a former Hollywood superhero.
Release Date: 4 May 2014 | 15 | Blu- ray/ DVD/ download Director: Alejandro G Iñárritu Cast: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis The hysteria surrounding the awards season means that director Alejandro G Iñárritu’s latest is now best known for beating Boyhood to the Best Picture statuette at the Oscars. That’s kind of a shame, but it’s striking enough to outlast such trivia. Divisive it may be, but what we have here is one of last year’s most intriguing and technically impressive films – as well as one of its funniest.
Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, a washed- up Hollywood star best known for playing Birdman – a superhero clearly analogous to, well, who do you think? Tired of his flagging blockbuster career, he embarks on a quest for authenticity by staging a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. It’s a terrible idea from the start, and he’s surrounded by ham actors, alcoholics ( Edward Norton, on dangerous form) and a daughter who appears to hate him ( Emma Stone). As the pressure of a looming opening night mounts he becomes increasingly detached from reality. We see him levitate in his room, argue with his Birdman costume ( who talks back, hilariously, in a Christian Bale growl) and soar high above the streets of New York.
It’s all just fantasy – isn’t it? By the end of the film that’s less clear, which will annoy some. If you’re a fan of straightforward narratives Birdman may leave you cold, though it’s not a difficult movie at all. Accusations that it’s a little on the smug side are also not entirely unfounded – it’s arch and pointedly artificial in a way that would give Wes Anderson pause, and there’s a barrage of winky in- jokes at the expense of the industry and its current super- obsession.
There’s no more obvious example of this than Keaton himself. Birdman would have worked fine with another actor in the lead, but the fact that it stars the ’ 80s/’ 90s Batman ( who also walked away from a series of sequels) heightens things considerably. It’s more than just a headline- grabbing gag: Keaton is mesmerising and nuanced, the manic intensity that he does so well tempered by Riggan’s pain and confusion. Riggan’s funny – an entitled, arrogant, deluded “Hollywood clown” – but he’s also completely sympathetic. His motivations may be self- centred, but he really is putting everything he’s got into his ridiculous play.
Keaton’s surrounded by a sterling cast. Norton’s Mike Shiner brings ticket sales and headaches as an unhinged Serious Theatre Actor – though Norton’s own past as the Hulk is acknowledged in one of the film’s more subtly amusing jabs. Yet another superhero- escapee comes in the form of Emma Stone, who is terrific as Sam, Riggan’s troubled daughter. She’s acidic and funny and relatable in precisely the way that the rest of cast aren’t. In one scene she rips into her dad for his years of selfish bullshit but, with a single disintegrating sneer, reveals a world of pain and regret. Andrea Riseborough, Zach Galifianakis and Naomi Watts are given less showy material, but are all excellent.
But the real stars here are Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The film takes place across several days, but is rendered in one seamless cut. It’s a trick, of course – there are plenty of edit points, skilfully disguised, but it gives the film a dizzying, dream- like feel that matches its moments of magic realism. It’s an absolutely gorgeous looking piece of work. Individual setpieces, meanwhile, are expertly realised: a scene where Riggan accidentally streaks through Times Square is like a nudity nightmare brought to disorientating and horribly funny life.
Some have interpreted the film’s attitude to Hollywood’s sequelitis as an attack on superhero cinema in general, but it’s not quite as
There’s a barrage of winky in- jokes at the expense of the industry and its super- obsession
straightforward as that. There are some snappy barbs ( when told that Jeremy Renner isn’t available to appear in the play because he’s, y’know, an Avenger, Riggan despairingly spits, “Fuck, they put him in a cape, too?!”) but the world of the theatre that Riggan’s so desperate to be a part of is just as compromised. When Lindsay Duncan’s poisonous critic sets out to destroy the play without having seen it, she just seems like a pompous and mean- spirited caricature. Showbusiness, the film seems to say, cultivates monsters and maniacs.
Birdman is film that defies simple “this is what it’s all about” analysis, while offering plenty of moments to muse on over multiple viewings. Sure, it’s a critique of vapid spectacle, but it’s also a moving portrait of a shitty dad coming to terms with his failings. It echoes Scorsese’s finest works ( King Of
Comedy and Taxi Driver, obvs) while being completely its own film. It goes without saying that it’s Keaton’s finest screen performance to date, but above all, it’s brilliantly, blisteringly funny.
Extras: There’s a small, but decent, nest of extras here. “Birdman: All Access” is a half- hour Making Of documentary that goes behind the scenes of the complex filming process with Iñárritu. It was by all accounts an incredibly tricky movie to make, with the actors required to learn many pages of dialogue for each ( long) scene. Featurette “A Conversation With Michael Keaton And Alejandro G Iñárritu” finds the director and his star discussing their intentions for the film. There’s also a gallery of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s on- set photography.
Iñárritu originally wanted a cameo from Johnny Depp as another actor hounded by his film alter ego – in his case Jack Sparrow.
Ninth rule of Fight Club: it’s more fun in your pants.