Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Jeremy Shamos, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Edward Norton
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.
When Birdman debuted around the festival circuit, it blew audiences away and even though it was released limitedly in the US, it still managed to pull in $23 million with stellar reviews. But with a lot of hype comes a lot of responsibility. One only has to look at Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar to see how too much hype can be a deterrent, but that is not the case with Birdman (or: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). It not only lives up to all of the hype, it surpasses it with ease. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is an exceptional film.
For some reason, Michael Keaton is an actor that is always painted with the, ‘he’s surprisingly good, isn’t he?’ brush, despite the fact he’s brilliant in virtually everything he does. Whether it’s being the best actor to lace up the boots as Batman, giving the most controlled madcap performance in Beetlejuice (something Johnny Depp could learn from) or providing all the laughs in movies like The Other Guys and Johnny Dangerously, Keaton is always the star of every screen he graces. Birdman is yet another example of how great Keaton is as a performer. Perhaps it’s because he can dial into his previous turn as The Dark Knight makes him the perfect casting as the washed-up Riggan Thomas, the former star of superhero movie series Birdman. Maybe it helped him understand this character who is tortured by his former role, the role he is best known for and is desperate to do what he can to move away from it. But Keaton sells all of this beautifully and every moment of frustration and anguish is believable and solid.
The same can be said for the supporting cast, some of which are pulling out career bests. Zach Galifianakis, one of the least funny men to still get comedy work, is phenomenal in the straight-man role to the maddening actions of Riggan and shows that he can be more than just “a fat man with a beard”. Emma Stone recovers from her bland outings in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Magic in the Moonlight to give a sublime turn as Riggan’s rebellious and troubled daughter Sam, but it’s Edward Norton that comes the closest to stealing the show from Keaton as he spoofs his own difficult-to-work-with attitude. Rarely has Norton been better as he revels in chewing the scenery purposefully while being every bit as pompous and patronising as he is reported to be. It’s always a joy to see an actor be part of this joke, while at the same time sending up other actors like him.
But while Birdman shines in its performances, it excels in its execution and style. Being that the movie is centred around a theatre performance, Birdman takes a cue from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and presents the movie as if it were one continuous shot through editing and camera trickery. Though not always seamless (it’s a touch heavy handed at times), the direction and vision from Alejandro González Iñárritu is spellbinding. It takes a massive level of skill, timing and planning to achieve this level of filmmaking and Iñárritu nails it effortlessly. Like Nacho Vigalondo’s Open Windows, the mere marvel of a movie like this coming together is worth the price of admission alone sometimes.
And while the camera work and movement is grand and impressive, the movie’s score by Antonio Sanchez is beautifully understated but perfectly used. Drum rolls match the progression of Riggan’s deepening madness and each cymbal crash feels like dropping another level in his sanity. It may not be as prevalent or bombastic as scores to Gone Girl or Interstellar, but Birdman ranks high in the year’s best efforts.
Birdman‘s script in terms of characters, dialogue and progression is near flawless and the ideas that it presents and discusses are very interesting, if not exactly groundbreaking. It asks questions about whether actors taking on superhero and comic book movies are doing themselves a disservice as artists because the films are too “Hollywood” and “manufactured” and this is where the movie is at its most interesting. Can we name Robert Downey Jr. as one of the best actors in the industry today when the bulk of his work sees him in a suit of iron and not grounded indie-level dramas? But rather than point at those who choose to star in comic book movies and shout “for shame”, Birdman lays this snobbish outlook on pompous critics who can’t see the wood for the trees. The sort of critic who won’t give The Avengers the time of day because of its genre, denying the movie’s simple pleasures of providing the escapism that a lot of cinema goers crave.
And even if you don’t look for the underlying themes and ideas, Birdman (or: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a fantastic, brilliant and wonderful movie. With some of the best performances committed to screen all year alongside some of the best camera movements and editing seen in some time, Birdman is a marvellous production and one that should be seen by as many as possible. Simply put, Birdman is worthy of all the hype it was given.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Luke Owen is the Deputy Editor of Flickering Myth and the host of the Flickering Myth Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @LukeWritesStuff.
You can listen to the Flickering Myth Podcast review of Birdman using the player below: