Two Comic Legends Playing It Straight, One Of Them On Purpose
By Johnny Pomatto
The divide between film and live theater is pretty great. The two industries don’t seem to know much about one another. I’ve seen plays attempt Hollywood satire that felt less edgy or knowledgeable than an average episode of “Entourage.” By contrast, most of Hollywood’s efforts to capture the energy and lifestyle of the theatrical process have been a little underwhelming. The fact that these two titans feel so separate is puzzling since these days they’ve rarely been closer. Broadway houses are full with A-list movie stars trying their hand in front of an audience, with varying degrees of success. Alejandro Inarritu’s new film BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORENCE) tells the story of such a movie star, trying to reclaim his role as an artist by writing, directing, and starring in a play on Broadway, all while gradually losing his mind. Despite the subtitle, BIRDMAN is hardly ignorant when it comes to the world of the theater. It certainly doesn’t get everything right (often by design), but it’s still one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen about the medium.
The great Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor who has never matched his superstar success since leaving the titular character’s super hero trilogy. As if struggling with his Broadway debut isn’t daunting enough, Riggan is also suffering a mental breakdown. He begins to hallucinate, believes he’s developing telekinetic powers, and his gravel voiced super alter ego starts talking to him in his head, trying to convince him that their glory days of fame and heroics are not necessarily over. With his signature smile and brow, it’s an absolute joy to watch Keaton perpetually on edge and ready to “go nuts” at any moment. Keaton is also surrounded by an exceptional cast, most notably Edward Norton, as an egomaniacal actor who is only able to function and cope when he’s on stage and in character. I haven’t loved Norton this much in years, and I often wished that his character could have a movie all to his own. Also in the mix are Riggan’s newly sober daughter (Emma Stone), his frazzled producer (Zach Galifianakis), his self-conscious leading lady (Naomi Watts), and his current girlfriend and ex wife (Andrea Riseborough and Amy Ryan, respectively). Many of the side stories from the ensemble are just as compelling as the main thread, so much so that I was disappointed that the supporting cast mostly vanishes for the final act of the movie. As compelling as I found the story of mentally unstable actors struggling with their craft, it may turn some off. But those who are not captivated by the dreamlike story should find plenty to love in the masterful direction of the film.
Inarritu blew me away with his debut features, “Amores Peros” and “21 Grams,” but his subsequent films “Babel” and “Biutiful” left me bored and bewildered. He won me back in a big way with BIRDMAN, which doesn’t look like any of his previous work, nor like any other film I’ve seen before. Inarritu, along with his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, have choreographed the action of the film like a beautiful ballet. It’s simulated to look as if it was shot in one continuous take, as the camera drifts along the corridors of the St. James Theater like it’s the labyrinth of Riggan’s mind. The effect is seamless. Often I was obsessively looking for the precise moment when a shot would cut and a new take would begin. Sometimes I would see it happen. Other times I’m sure I missed it. But after a while I stopped looking altogether and just enjoyed the ride I was being taken on. As I said, the film was shot entirely on location in the St. James Theater in New York. What the film occasionally lacks in true detail of the theatrical process, it more than makes up for in authenticity of the environment. From the stage to the lobby, to the catwalks and dressing rooms, we get to know the geography of the theater like we’re working there ourselves. All the choreography and camera tricks employed are dependent on the layout of the actual space of the theater. It’s become so rare for a film to shoot in an interior location, especially one as specific as this, that it helps give the story an air of authenticity, even while fantastical things are happening around it. Just when you’ve noticed that the camera hasn’t cut away from a certain actor for about 10 minutes, suddenly a seamless special effect will appear out of nowhere and you marvel at how one tiny mistake could have ruined a whole sequence in the film.
While I was captivated by the many plot threads and stories told in the film, I did sometimes get taken out of it when Inarritu’s odd agenda would slip through. Occasionally there will be a reference to Facebook or Twitter or cell phone culture that seems to be an attempt for Inarritu to rant about things that make him angry, though he never fully commits to skewering these subjects so their interjections just come across as distracting. Also, the very premise of the movie seems to suggest that Inarritu has some issues with the Hollywood machine, specifically the super hero genre. The irony is lost on no one that the character of Birdman is not unlike Keaton’s own superstar turn as Batman. Norton and Stone also have super hero movies in their repertoire, and when Riggan inquires if Jeremy Renner would be available for his play and learns that he’s an Avenger now, he angrily responds with “the cape got him!” If I have one critique of Keaton’s casting, it’s that I don’t think the comparison is apt, as Keaton has never been defined by that role the way Riggan has with Birdman. Fortunately, the movie doesn’t dwell on this notion too much and therefore I need not wrestle with conflicting emotions of one of my favorite comedic actors of all time getting one of the best roles of his career. And while the spirit of Birdman ultimately overpowers Riggan, it’s Keaton who dominates this film. I had grown so tired of seeing Keaton’s name fifth billed in a lame comedy or action movie every few years. He’s finally a star again and seeing him soar on the screen like this couldn’t make me happier.
We, as a society, love Bill Murray. If you don’t agree with that previous statement then we have no use for you here. On earth, I mean. We grew up on his comedies and he’s constantly making us happy with stories of his unpredictable antics. Ever since Murray was robbed of an Oscar for arguably his greatest performance (“Rushmore”), we’ve been trying to find a way to make it up to him. Anytime a prestigious looking film comes out that features Murray, we get excited and think, “this could be the one…” “Look! He’s playing FDR!” “Look! He’s the comic relief in a World War II movie! “Look! He grew a beard! I smell Oscar!” Sadly, the stench of Oscar never lingers for long. Those of you getting anxious about Murray’s latest film ST. VINCENT should prepare yourselves for disappointment.
Like in “Rushmore,” Murray is once again playing the part of the inappropriate role model. Melissa McCarthy plays Maggie, a newly single mother who moves her son Oliver (newcomer Jaeden Lieberher, not bad for a child actor) out to Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Overworked as a nurse, Maggie needs someone to watch Oliver after school and naturally she turns to her alcoholic, gambling addict neighbor next door, the titular Murray. Hey! I used the word “titular” in two consecutive reviews. Sorry about that. Vincent is supposed to be one of those grouchy old men who is salty on the outside, sweet on the inside. But it’s a few days now since I’ve seen the film and I’m having trouble remembering any sweet qualities to him. I guess he deserves credit for taking care of the Russian prostitute he impregnated (Naomi Watts, one of the film’s brightest spots). Clearly only a lovable scamp like Oliver can melt Vincent’s icy, cold heart. But it’s not like Oliver has a shortage of eccentric patriarchal figures in his life. Frankly I would have preferred more interaction with his Catholic school teacher, played by Chris O’Dowd, or even more interaction with McCarthy, in a thankless role that paints her as a devoted mother when she actually seems like a pretty destructive force.
But no one is more destructive than Vincent, who at worst is endangering Oliver’s life and at best, teaching him how to gamble at the racetrack. It’s all supposed to be terribly cute, and given that the formula has worked well for Murray before, I suppose it could have been. But watching the movie, I just felt that Vincent never did anything to earn the saint-like redemption he’s given in the end, and nobody wanted to see that more than me. It doesn’t help that Murray saddles himself with a painfully broad Brooklyn accent, which unfairly feels out of place for the Chicagoan, but it’s also pretty annoying. It’s no wonder that Vincent appears to be at his sweetest when a third-act plot development keeps him from speaking for a good chunk of the film.
While watching ST. VINCENT, I was overcome with feelings that I had seen all of this before. While running through a list of films in my head that this was an amalgam of, I was suddenly reminded of Nick Hornby’s “About a Boy” and realized that the film copies that template almost beat for beat. It even has a nearly identical climax. I usually don’t critique a film too much for being derivative of another, because I understand that there are only so many original stories out there and a great director or performer (like Murray) can make something familiar feel totally fresh and unique. Sadly that never happens with this film, and I dare say that first time feature director Theodore Melfi’s greatest feat of filmmaking was getting Murray to agree to starring in it at all. Writing this review has depressed me to no end. There are few actors who I adore more than Murray, so seeing him in something I disliked so much is genuinely upsetting. I can only hope that he’s not in the habit of Googling himself these days, as it would break my heart to have him read this. Still, it might be fun to be the subject of one of those famous Bill Murray stories you read about online. One day I’ll hear a knock at the door and Bill will be standing there, ready to kick my ass. And I’ll deserve it, but as I take my licks I’ll be thinking of happier times. When Bill was busting ghosts, wooing Andie MacDowell, or doing cannonballs into a swimming pool. Hell, after ST. VINCENT, I’d even happily watch him drive that elephant across country again. Hope you’re back soon, Bill. I’ll be waiting.