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NPR Arts and Life

'Birdman' Follows A Film Actor Frantic To Prove Himself Onstage

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new film "Birdman" closed the recent New York Film Festival and has been mentioned as a likely awards contender. It's directed by Alejandro Inarritu, best known for the films "Babel" and "21 Grams," and stars Michael Keaton as an actor much like Michael Keaton. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: You'll probably be wowed by "Birdman" by how the camera hurdles after characters in what's made to look like a single, fluid, movie-long take, transcending space and often time, even soaring off into fantasy while viscerally evoking the desperation of a washed-up film actor to bring off his Broadway debut. You should be wowed. I was, too. And I didn't even like the movie. I had to marvel at director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's choreography at the go-for-broke performances. The film is an empty masterwork.

Michael Keaton plays the actor Riggan Thomson. And who doesn't want to see him - Keaton, I mean - back on top? He gave us "Beetlejuice" the bio-exorcist, one of the modern screens' most rollicking comic creations. And he proved his straight-acting chops in movies like "Clean And Sober" and, yes, "Batman." Riggan, like Keaton, made his fortune in the role of a superhero - Birdman. But after a long, fallow period, he's frantic to prove himself in a self-penned, self-directed adaptation of Raymond Carver's story collection "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." That camera trails him from his dressing room, often chased by Zach Galifianakis as his harried producer, past Naomi Watts as an insecure actress and Edward Norton as her hot dog-actor boyfriend with periodic harangues by a fiercely overacting Emma Stone as Riggan's fresh-from-rehab daughter. Between clashes, Riggan is taunted by the voice of his old character, Birdman, who reminds him of his sorry state - how the super-heroic have fallen. On the street, Riggan fights with Norton's Mike who just made a ruckus in rehearsal. They pass a drummer who turns up periodically in the film to make your heart beat even faster.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIRDMAN")

MICHAEL KEATON: (As Riggan Thomson) Let's go. Walk.

EDWARD NORTON: (As Mike Shiner) Where are we going?

KEATON: (As Riggan Thomson) To get you some coffee. Did I do something to disrespect you?

NORTON: (As Mike Shiner) Not yet.

KEATON: (As Riggan Thomson) Look, I have a lot riding on this [bleep] play.

NORTON: (As Mike Shiner) Oh, is that right?

KEATON: (As Riggan Thomson)Yeah, people know who I am.

NORTON: (As Mike Shiner) They don't know you, your work, man. They know the guy from the bird suit who goes and tells coy his slightly vomitous stories on "Letterman."

KEATON: (As Riggan Thomson) Oh, I'm sorry if I'm popular, Mike.

NORTON: (As Mike Shiner) Popular? I don't give a [bleep] - popular? Popularity is this bloody little cousin of prestige, my friend.

KEATON: (As Riggan Thomson) OK. I don't even know what that means so...

NORTON: (As Mike Shiner) It means - it means my reputation is riding on this, and that's worth...

KEATON: (As Riggan Thomson) A lot.

NORTON: (As Mike Shiner) A lot, exactly, yes. If this doesn't work out for you, you [bleep] back to your studio pals and dive back into that cultural genocide you guys are perpetrating. You know a douche bag's born every minute. That was P.T. Barnum's premise when he invented the circus, and nothing much has changed. And you guys know that if you crank out any toxic piece of crap, people will line up and pay to see it. But long after you're gone I'm going to be on that stage earning my living, baring my soul, wrestling with complex human emotions 'cause that's what we do.

KEATON: (As Riggan Thomson) Oh, so that - is that what tonight was about? You wrestling with complex emotions?

NORTON: (As Mike Shiner) No. Tonight was just about seeing if it's even alive, seeing if it can breathe. This isn't the back lot, Riggan. This is New York City. This is how we do things.

EDELSTEIN: Norton is one of "Birdman's" bright spots. His character exists on a level of jerky entitlement that's positively mythic. But what comes out of the other character's mouths is not so fresh. We learn that Riggan wasn't there for his daughter growing up, that he was lousy to his wife, played by Amy Ryan, and that he has an actress girlfriend, played by Andrea Riseborough, to whom he can't make the ultimate commitment. Mostly, Riggan marinates in self-pity. For all his energy, he's tiresome. The movie grinds you down. And when Riggan takes off into the air like a bird, it means nothing. The magic realism is only there to psych you out.

And director Inarritu never bothers to tell us if this stage adaptation of Raymond Carver deserves to succeed, if it's good. The snippets we see are stilted, though the audience looks enraptured. I don't think he has much respect for the medium of theater.

I admit that "Birdman," which carries the subtitle or the unexpected virtue of ignorance, didn't endear me with its nasty jabs at critics. The low point is a scene with a smug New York Times chief drama critic played by Lindsay Duncan. She pens her reviews improbably in a theater district bar, and tells Riggan that sight unseen, she'll destroy his show because he's a movie star, as if critics these days aren't delighted along with everyone else to see film actors test themselves on stage and fill houses. But I actually do agree with Inarritu that a lot of critics are intellectual peons. How else to explain the rave reviews he got for the pretend depths of his movies "21 Grams" and "Babel" and "Biutiful"?

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.