Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan, Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts.
A washed-up actor who once played an iconic superhero must overcome his ego and family trouble as he mounts a Broadway play in a bid to reclaim his past glory.
Birdman, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s hysterical parody of art and artistes, provides a whole new direction for the director. Inarritu’s set his po-faced callousness adrift and tackled this tale of a washed-up former superhero movie star attempting a comeback on the New York stage with a wry cynicism that bites, kicks and has acid for blood. We’re on new ground for the director, familiar ground for a re-energised star – Michael Keaton, as ageing has-been Riggan Thomson – and find ourselves guided by Emmanuel Lubezki, perhaps the greatest living DoP (hyperbolic? Not at all). That’s Lubezki outdoing even the stellar work he won the Cinematography Oscar for only this year by making this weeks-long, city-spanning movie out of what appears to be a single long take (a craftily edited one, mind).
The accomplishments of these three on Birdman will bring the film most of the praise, deservedly so, as this may be the best individual work of the whole trifecta. But we must also call out the screenplay by Inarritu, Alexander Dinelaris, Nicolas Giacobone and Armando Bo, who together have delivered a caustic assault on Tinseltown and celebrity, and popularity as “the slutty little cousin of prestige.” Keaton, Edward Norton, playing the difficult method actor Thomson hires as co-star in his make-or-break theatre production, and Emma Stone, who plays Thomson’s troubled daughter/PA, are all superhero movie veterans, yet Birdman is early on only too pleased to dismiss the lucrative, bank-breaking genre regardless. This film is all about being anti-establishment in a very specific time: right this minute.
Between Thomson and Norton’s Mike Shiner there are heated debates on what constitutes selling out and what constitutes making art, while Stone’s Sam represents a new generation that simultaneously snorts at Thompson’s blockbuster past and derides what’s viewed as the futility of dedicating time to something only a group of “rich New Yorkers” will ever see. Birdman criticises the Twitter age, in which stars have to create an online presence in order to prove they exist. It lambasts Hollywood, sarcastically namechecks everyone from Ryan Gosling to Justin Bieber, and, in Lindsay Duncan’s mean-spirited reviewer, truly takes the critic to task as a biased snob (and possible failed artist).
Birdman almost feels like a lesson to the movie critics who’ll lap this movie up. Despite all the hard work Riggan puts into his play, an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story, we have to watch Duncan’s Tabitha decide to trash the production before she even sees it, just because she has feelings on Thomson and his kind (celebrities) going in. Duncan is wonderfully acerbic in her brief appearance; also in need of singling out is Andrea Riseborough as Riggan’s flaky co-star and lover, Amy Ryan as his beleaguered ex-wife and Edward Norton as the pretentious, self-centred buffoon Shiner, instantly recognisable as any self-consciously ‘serious’ actor that’s ever made the headlines for his commitment to the craft.
It’s sort of a meta role for Norton, who in the past is alleged to have been so problematic that he’s tried to put his own stamp on films in which he’s been the star (Shiner, upon meeting Thomson, immediately tries to take control of the way the play’s directed). It’s the best part Norton’s had in a while. In the coming awards season, he’s bound to be nominated for a Best Supporting Actor statue at practically every ceremony, and he’ll be there right alongside Keaton, who’s almost a shoo-in for Best Actor. Riggan Thompson isn’t a role Keaton was born to play, but rather one he’s LIVED to play. Keaton’s always been an exciting presence, but in this performance is the accumulation of decades of experience, as a celebrity, as a dramatic actor, as a comedian, as a down-on-his-luck theatre performer. This IS the performance of a lifetime.
Keaton understands, as the writers clearly do, the highlights and lowlights found in the life of a famous Hollywood actor. It’s serious, often tragic material, but done as absurd comedy. Set to a drum score of impeccable class, Birdman’s occasionally fantastical (Thompson’s alter-ego/hallucination is his old Birdman character), and bulging with wit (“Get some surgery – 60’s the new 30, motherfucker!” Birdman tells Riggan as he stalks him down an NYC street). Whether this represents a reinvention of Inarritu remains to be seen, but the director does better channelling his outrage this way. His previous films had been progressively grim and humourless, culminating in the almost unwatchable poverty porn of Biutiful. Birdman is sour, but its verve and energy, born from the camerawork and the acute comic tone, makes Inarritu’s anger not just palatable, but exhilarating. It’s as though he’s found his true path.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Brogan Morris – Lover of film, writer of words, pretentious beyond belief. Thinks Scorsese and Kubrick are the kings of cinema, but PT Anderson and David Fincher are the young princes. Follow Brogan on Twitter if you can take shameless self-promotion.
You can listen to the Flickering Myth Podcast review of Birdman using the player below: