16 January 2015
London

Two new movies – Into The Woods and Birdman – send me from ass-numbing boredom to comedy heaven in one afternoon. 

“Dying is easy, comedy is hard”, the great Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean was supposed to have said (on his death bed, appropriately enough). The two movies I watched back-to-back this afternoon proved Kean’s rule, for good and for ill.

First up was Rob Marshall’s much-heralded screen adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical Into The Woods, with a starry cast led by Meryl Streep. Into the Woods dates from the mid-1980s, when it provided a rare note of ironic wit in a decade dominated by the bathos of Andrew Lloyd-Webber mega-musicals like Phantom of the Opera. Sondheim and Lapine concocted a dark, revisionist fairy tale for adults, taking Grimm’s Fairy Tales and filtering them through a blackly funny post-Freudian lens. Red Riding Hood turned from child victim into a binge-eating megalomaniac who proudly wore a wolfskin clock, Rapunzel realises that she has unresolved mother issues, and Cinderella has second thoughts about life with her unfaithful Prince Charming. The result was something that felt genuinely perverse, but which somehow also rang true to the macabre and bloodthirsty tone of the original stories.

Thirty years later, it’s somewhat strange to find Disney producing and funding the film version of Into the Woods, a piece that seems at odd with the irony-free and G-rated confections they spin. That said, the timing of Into the Woods feels fortuitous. Popular is now awash with revisionist fairy tales – Wicked, Shrek, Enchanted and Frozen – with kickass feminist heroines and postmodern asides about the artificiality of storytelling. Modern audiences, it seems, have finally caught up with Sondheim and Lapine’s skewed, cynical vision. The film is directed by Rob Marshall, a former musical choreographer who had a huge success with his film adaptation of Kander & Ebb’s Chicago, and who seemed like a safe pair of hands to bring Into the Woods to life onscreen.

Alas, the film of Into the Woods, though tastefully mounted and starrily cast, is a dull, colourless thing, with little of the life or energy of the stage version. I seldom fall asleep during movies, but after an hour or so of strenuous top notes and thespians emoting in an artificial-looking forest, I was out like a light.

There are so many things wrong with the staging and tone that it’s difficult to know exactly where the fault lies. From the beginning, the film doesn’t seem to know whether it’s a film of a stage play or its own messier creation. The set, costumes and performances veer wildly from naturalism to Grand Guignol camp, and the staging feels awkward and claustrophobic. As was widely feared when Disney took the helm, the darker aspects of Sondheim and Lapine’s script have been toned down. This de-fanging, coupled with a sense of cautious reverence towards the material, makes for an awkward, uninspired staging. Everyone creeps around the fake forest nervously, singing their high notes with harsh, shrill perfection, but the action feels strangely stilted.

I woke up just in time to catch Meryl Streep chewing what’s left of the scenery as the Witch, in her big final number. Streep gives a larger-than-life, physically strenuous performance, that’s big enough to be seen from space. She succeeds where nearly everyone else fails by wrangling the part into submission and making it her own. When she’s not on screen she leaves a void that the remaining players struggle to fill. Emily Blunt has some amusing moments as the Baker’s Wife, and Christine Baranski camps it up amusingly as the Stepmother who cheerily saws off her daughters’ feet to fit the golden slipper. But they’re moments that feel like celebrity showboating, pitched too eagerly for our approval, like buskers trying to attract attention in the street.

I’m sure there’ll be an audience for Into the Woods somewhere. No doubt the DVD version will fire the imagination of 15 year-old homosexuals to move to the Big City and work in show business, and discover the dark and kinky world of Sondheim. But there’s little in this adaptation that feels necessary, urgent or even entertaining to me. Perhaps some musicals are left better where they are, amongst the harsh lights and greasepaint of the stage.

Feeling decidedly un-toe-tappy, I headed straight back into the theatre to watch Birdman, Alejandro Iñárritu’s slick, self-assured and very funny look at backstage hi-jinks and crushed ambitions on the set of a Broadway play. Birdman follows the downward spiral of Riggan Thomson (a fantastic Michael Keaton), a washed up movie star who made his name playing a masked winged superhero, and is attempting a comeback via an ambitious Broadway play As he faces potential humiliation on stage, he has to wrangle his sychophantic lawyer, his wounded ex-wife, his possibly pregnant girlfriend and co-star, the show’s narcissistic Method Actor co-star, and his smart-talking daughter who’s fresh out of rehab.

Birdman plays as a backstage comedy in the tradition of Noises Off, complete with last-minute setbacks, actors concussed by falling lights, backstage diva fits, musical bed-swapping, on stage erections and guns that may or may not be loaded. It’s also a meditation about the blurred boundaries between art and life, and the ways in which actorly self-absorption and ambition swallows everything else in its path. The faultless cast have great fun playing narcissistic hysterical versions of themselves – Edward Norton, in particular, provides what must be one of the definitive performances of a monstrously self-absorbed Method Actor. In its darker notes, we see also the toll that Riggan’s career has taken on his ex-wife and daughter, and his despair as he realises that his career has brought him money but little satisfaction.

Iñárritu also has fun skewering the actorly snobbishness that genuflects to theatre as the temple of true art and film as a cesspit of soulless profiteering. Riggan hopes that a successful run in the theatre will revive his street cred, and tries to ignore the voice of Birdman in his head urging him to give it up and go and make another franchise movie. As opening night approaches, a frosty film critic tells Riggan that she resents him taking up space on Broadway and will bury him with a bad review. The joke is compounded as Riggan realises that she’s right, and that his motivation is more for approval than the love of art.

As if in response to his character’s anguish, Iñárritu makes a film that looks as much like a play as possible. The action is filmed in Steadicam in a series of long uninterrupted tracking shots, seamlessly edited together in CGI to make the entire film look like a single continuous sequence. Iñárritu is a little too in love with his own virtuosity, but his point seems to be that movies and the actors in them can work with the endurance and intensity of a great play.

Not everyone will love Birdman. It’s a bit more forgiving and less sharp-edged than it purports to be, and the ending drags on self-indulgently for about 20 minutes too long. But it’s a thrilling and entertaining ride, peppered with laugh out loud comedy, and the most fun I’ve had at the theatre in ages. If only Meryl had signed on to do Birdman instead of the dreary Into the Woods, everyone would have lived happily ever after.

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