michael keaton
How did we wind up here? In this dump? You were a movie star, remember?Birdman

Four screens. Two coasts. 424 thousand dollars. Put the numbers together? Buzz. Plenty of buzz.

Past the mid-point of October comes the time movie audiences expect to see a more adult-skewed and serious-themed selection of films as studio executives roll out the product they consider their best shot for award consideration. The practice begins in earnest by Thanksgiving, but in the case of smaller and more esoteric fare, getting a leg up on the competition means starting earlier and building that buzz more gradually.

So it is with writer/director Alejandro Innaritu’s quirky dark comedy Birdman, the latest off-kilter offering from the predictably unpredictable folks at Fox Searchlight. The strategy paid off handsomely opening weekend: Ticket buyers at the Arclight Hollywood in Los Angeles were turned away from at least one Friday night showing only to be told the next, one hour later, was quickly selling out.

Many who caught the promotional trailer playing in theaters well in advance of opening weekend no doubt shared the same curiosity which only added to this film’s must-see appeal: Once again, art and life seemed set on a collision course.

The title character, an actor named Riggan – taken on with near chromosomal intensity by Michael Keaton – once starred in a huge action movie franchise called Birdman, but in spite of success as a pop culture sensation, Riggan grew to hate the hero he portrayed. One of those serious types who wants nothing more than to engage in high art –- Riggan walked away from the staggering success of the action franchise after a couple of sequels and decided to follow his bliss working on projects that meant something to him.

Given enough time away from the spotlight laboring in the world of working actors, Riggan attempts a late-in-life comeback on the New York stage with a Broadway play adapted from a Raymond Carver short story which he both writes and directs. With that obscure artsy armament, Riggan finds himself staking everything he hasn’t already mortgaged on one improbable shot at gaining another toehold in the arena of respectability. All the while a voice in his head torments the man by alternately propping him up and tearing him down as he goes about the business of putting on the play.

The premise in itself sounds ludicrous, but when Michael Keaton is added to the mix as Riggan, the former Birdman star — the result carries the delicious appeal of a train wreck about to unfold in front of a bystander who’s already figured out the train is set to derail and all that’s missing is the buttered pop corn and a front row seat. But nothing less could await a plot hanging on the actor who originated the role of the big screen Batman starring here as the man who once played a superhero in a lycra bird suit. The irony is not lost on Keaton.

“I can make it this simple: this is the thing. Just when you think, ‘Well, maybe the reason I ever wanted to do this, really, really deep inside, you know, just, I got close and it kinda happened – then this comes along, and this movie made me remember – this is what I want to do, this is the kind of thing I want to do,” Keaton explains in a studio interview to promote the film as it was still in production.

“I’m not trying to make a statement. I’m just trying to work with people who really go to this level, and when you’re in that company with a guy like Alejandro, once that ship leaves the harbor, there ain’t no coming back and you don’t want to come back. And it gets scary, and the waves get big, and the storms get big, and you don’t know exactly where you’re going, but he always (punctuates this with his right index finger) knew where he was going, and so you want to be part of this, you want to be this scared, you want to be this challenged. And it was so difficult I can’t tell you on so many levels. But also, a thrill, an unbelievable thrill.”

Another thrill may follow. Two of Keaton’s co-stars – Naomi Watts and Edward Norton — have twice been nominated for Academy Awards. To hear Norton’s appraisal of Keaton’s performance, chances look better than decent that Birdman may provide Keaton with a long-awaited appointment with Oscar this time around.

“I was really knocked out by Michael’s performance in this. He did some stuff,” Norton pauses and shakes his head at the memory of his time on set with Keaton. “It’s just the movie really hangs on him. I think it hangs on the tension – him being able to strike this balance of empathizing with (Riggan) even as he makes himself look ridiculous, and it completely sinks or swims for me on Riggin, and I just thought – like multiple times in the course of doing the film — I had the distinct sensation of like, ‘Man, this guy is laying down a really, really great performance,” Norton states emphatically.

“I don’t always have that on the spot. You can be impressed,” and again the actor pauses before continuing. “He really did some beautiful, beautiful stuff.”

In addition to Norton and Watts, the supporting cast – which Keaton calls Hall of Fame material – includes England’s Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Zach Galifianakis and Emma Stone. Birdman is rated R and runs 119 minutes. Critics on RottenTomatoes.com gave the film a score of 92 out of 100.

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