In Birdman, Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomas, a washed up actor, who once played an iconic superhero, battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career and himself in the days leading up to the opening of a Broadway play.
Let’s start by saying this film is weird…stunningly, wonderfully, willfully weird.
Birdman is an inventive take on fame, risk, instability and rejection. The notion of celebrity and self-importance is fully explored with impeccable performances, brilliant direction and absolutely dizzying cinematography.
Iñárritu’s Birdman isn’t here to serve as a counter-argument against our superhero-blockbuster-multiplex film consumerism (although, it doesn’t pull back from jabs at the genre), but instead it is a film about a former star who wants the respect and adoration of not only his audience, but his friends and family.
Riggan hinges everything, his finances, his reputation, and the future of flagging career on this one play (an adaptation of Raymond Carver story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”). As Riggan’s well-laid plans begin to unravel, so does his mental state, with his self-doubt wrapped in hallucinations of superpowers and flying. This is where Birdman becomes a sharp and beautiful spectacle.
Iñárritu wrote and directed an ebb and flow of action. The camera is as restless as the characters, Birdman is shot in… ONE. SINGLE. CONTINUOUS. TAKE – without cuts (but with a few seamless digital sutures) – it’s incredibly impressive and undeniably crucial to the way the story is told. The ceaseless camera movement creates a sense of urgency and anxiousness which borderlines frantic.
Iñárritu’s vision is brought to manic life by Emmanuel Lubezki, director of photography, who is a master with his fluid camera movements. Lubezki was the genius behind the camera on Gravity, Sleepy Hollow, The New World, Children of Men, and The Tree of Life. Instead of following the action, Lubezki and Iñárritu manage to immerse the audience IN the exchange between actors. The movement keeps you watching, rather than distractedly wondering. Give Lubezki the awards…all of them.
Birdman is a complicated dark comedy that would’ve been absurd in the hands of a less talented cast. The strength of Birdman lies in its performances.
Keaton is in top form, in a career-best performance. Michael Keaton deserves every bit of hard earned recognition and awards season glory (including an Oscar nomination and Golden Globes win) that he’s getting for this film. Riggan’s escalating anxiety, frantic and hilarious energy, self-pity and self-actualization are so expertly played. Keaton’s performance is outlandish, uproarious, and a little bit nuts. He’s just so great in this film.
It seems that there was no one more perfect for the role of Riggan Thomas or Birdman than Michael Keaton. Batman Returns…in Birdman. It’s easy to draw comparisons in Keaton’s own career with the trials and tribulations of Riggan Thomas. In Birdman, Riggan famously turned down “Birdman 4” to pursue other artistic endeavors. In real life, Keaton refused a $15 million offer to reprise his role as Batman/Bruce Wayne in Batman Forever (side note: Keaton will always be my first and favorite Bruce Wayne/Batman).
As Riggan nears a mental breakdown, the character of Birdman makes appearances as his “professional conscience”, or more correctly, the little devil whispering in his ear. As opening night approaches, and Riggan nears a mental breakdown, he is visited by the granite-voiced figure of Birdman, his ego – almost like menacing devil on his shoulder – calling out his insecurities and tempting him back to the pull of big money and sequels to blockbuster films.
This rest of the cast is excellent. Edward Norton is the intense method actor Mike Shiner, a thespian whose obsession with an honest performance extends hilarious and uncomfortable belligerence on stage. Lesley (Naomi Watts), the leading lady of the play, is a mess of nerves. The play also includes Riggans’ current, slightly unhinged girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough). The show’s producer, Jake (a surprisingly low key Zach Galifianakis) keeps appearing in amusing and horribly-timed instances to update Riggan on bad news and imminent failure. And thrown into the mix are Riggan’s lovely ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan) and fresh out of rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone).
The relationship between Sam and Riggan is thoughtful and invariably explosive. Sam has begun working as her father’s assistant, and skulks through the theater in her dad’s shadow, mocking him for his vanity and tearing his ego down. It’s a cutting and fantastic, Oscar-nominated performance from Emma Stone. As much as she mocks him, Sam holds the same insecurities and variant mental issues as her father – unforgiving for a father-daughter relationship lost to fame. While Riggan finds that he might prefer the acclaim of strangers to intimacy with his wife and daughter.
Iñárritu has crafted a thrilling film, weaving sharp dialogue, comedy and complicated emotions (and mental states) into a darkly funny and seamless tale about fame, entitlement, and empty showmanship. This film, a sum of all of its eccentricities, is great. This is a towering achievement in film – utterly captivating. I don’t know how it works so well…but I guess that’s the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.