Thursday, January 15, 2015


Something soaring through the sky. Is it a meteorite? Space junk? It courses through the clouds and the gravity from some point where it sparkled for our delight and now briefly burning out in the air before landing as a scatter of rock and dust. Then we meet its human counterpart. We see him from behind wearing only his white jocks, levitating in front of the window of his dressing room as a huge manly voice asks: How did we get here?

Well, Riggan Thomas, whose own shooting star landed when he opted out of the movie persona of the title, is trying to regather his pieces and fly again. He is doing this through Michael Keaton whom the world has known for frenetic comedy and superheroism but not for some decades and the match could not be better. We are reminded, frame by frame, of his fall from fortune and that his means of self-rescue is in his ballsy attempt to resurrect through live theatre. It's not the the tight fit between actor and character nor even that of character and the role he plays on stage as much as it is the sheer constant recognition on Keaton's face that he has lived this and might well survive it.

We see him struggling through the teetering obstacles of the cast he has assembled, the backstage of his theatre and the stage itself, rendered very tightly scary here, the way we might struggle to the door of a tram crowded with the more volatile end of the public transport user spectrum. One lead actor acts too much and doesn't get direction. His strange dispatch is bizarrely owned by Riggan. His replacement is a boon to the publicity and promotion side of things but takes the method to breaking point. Riggan's post-marital girlfriend is pregnant the daughter/PA from his marriage might be sliding back into drugs and personal miasma again. Through all of this we get a robust and nuanced performance keeping it all together from Keaton even as Riggan fails to do that for himself.

The knocking blend I described in that last paragraph might have made a passable comedy and even served an ok backdrop for a more conventional tale of a man's breakdown after his failure to achieve the love of the world he so craved. The good news here is that none of this ever takes that sidewards step; all the objects are thrown, caught and passed between hands the way a good juggler does it while we happily get absorbed by the motion and the skill.

This film plays as a single take. We are not meant to believe it was all done in one pass the way we are with Russian Ark or Rope, though: skies turn from morning to midnight in seconds, pans reveal characters who weren't there seconds before engaged in conversations that have been going for minutes. Here and there we ride on the lens through iron lace or window frames just to remind us of the virtuosity of this but that's more cheek than wow. It might still be demanding to plan and execute such constant motion but it takes a lot less than the passage through a neon sign that happens in Citizen Kane from the 1940s. To my mind, while flamboyant here and there, the seamless edit does more to help us bear the constant burden of Riggan Thomas. It cleverly also allows us a warm smile when the moments of psychokinetic wish fulfilment we have been seeing from Riggan consolidate into their glorious apotheosis in the third act. There is great skill on screen but we are allowed to forget that. Any film that can so deliberately remove an opportunity to save itself by its audience's indulgence will win me every time.

But, in fact, there is so much more to enjoy here like the note perfect casting. Keaton can still convince us he's thinking faster and deeper than anyone else in the room AND use his whole body to make us laugh while running through a crowd, clad in only his underpants. Same kind of chops he showed in Beetlejuice but, boy, are they good chops. I'll welcome Naomi Watts back to the cinema after Diana and Movie 43; here clearly relishing playing a actor wanting to be a "real" actor. Edward Norton, as funny as he was in Fight Club, gives us someone barely capable of truth off stage. His scenes with Emma Stone have a touching baton passing to them. Stone takes her Sam from fucked-up millennial to let her bug eyed youthful perfection show anger and real ache. Zach Galifianakis and Andrea Riseborough assume more thankless roles and keep them supporting the structure, making us notice them even more.

A whole par on the actors for this film about actors and their craft, the accepted falsehood of their craft and how that can place them in a kind of constantly defensive position. Compress that into the flaming meteorite hurtling to atomised invisibility that is Riggan's crisis and you get -- Well, what I was reminded of as I left the cinema was how I recently showed a couple of friends much younger than I the 1976 film Network. That film is a masterpiece that I shall never tire of. Its dialogue is unrealistically literate but includes such refulgent speeches that feel as big as a movie should if it is to say anything worth hearing. Is Birdman as good as Network? Well, it feels as much a film that loves being a film and I can't think of a better start to the moviegoing year in many moons because of that.