Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Starring Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Jeremy Shamos, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan and 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.
n. pl. vir·tu·o·sos or vir·tu·o·si (-sē)
1. A person with masterly ability, technique, or personal style.
2. A person with masterly skill or technique in the arts.
3. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s direction of ‘Birdman’ (2014)
Birdman both is a film lover’s wildest dreams realised in one two hour film and a sharp, witty and sad commentary on all things Hollywood. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film is just as kinetic as any of the actual superhero films it takes swipes at and has an unrelenting energy and creative spark which is unparalleled by any other cinema experience of 2014. I wouldn’t go as far as crowning it the best film of the year but it’s undoubtedly one of the most original experiments I’ve seen in this, or any year.
The film takes place over a few frantic days where Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton), a former A-List Hollywood star who had his own comic book movie franchise (the titular ‘Birdman’) is leading up to the opening night of a stage play which he has adapted, directed, and also stars. The project will make or break Thomas financially, morally, and what is left of his deteriorating mental state; his ego, taking the form of the Birdman character, is tormenting him throughout the film asking why he has sunk so low to appear on stage rather than give audiences ‘what they want’ and make a forth movie in the Birdman series.
Things get worse for Thomas when one of the play’s cast members has to be replaced after an accident and in comes Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a famous Broadway actor and notorious pain in the arse. Many of the film’s best scenes come from the sparring between Keaton and Norton, two actors who have both been at the very top (Keaton commercially with Tim Burton’s Batman and Norton who emerged as, in my opinion, the best actor of his generation in the late 1990s) but in recent years have stayed away or been overlooked for the commercial money-making hits. Iñárritu’s films have always enabled the often formidable cast to deliver strong performances and in Birdman everyone has an equal chance to shine, regardless of screen time.
The film is Keaton’s, however, and he allows nothing to get in his way from giving the performance of his career; from the opening shot of him in his white Y-fronts with his love handles and slightly flabby physique (by no means fat but he’s not still trading on his body, unlike many leading men) to dissecting the words in his own script with Norton, to taking point-blank criticism from his recovering drug addict daughter (Emma Stone), to challenging the number one theatre critic in New York over the merits and value of Hollywood versus theatre, Keaton shows a range which perhaps he’s not been given the chance to show in any film to date.
The casting of Keaton of course adds weight and realism to the Riggan Thomas due to the parallels of Keaton’s own career, but thankfully there isn’t too much association in the film with actual comic book movies because Lord knows we don’t need to see another film about that. “They love action, not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit” says ‘Birdman’ to Thomas at one point.
Current box office for Birdman in the US is $24 million. Guardians of the Galaxy took $332 million. Not an entirely fair comparison, but the film’s comments are sadly true as opening weekends and box office totals is the measure of success as far as studios are concerned.
Iñárritu taps into a comedic and more playful tone than previously explored in his work and perhaps is commenting on the perception of his own career and the need to show everyone he is not to be pigeon-holed as a director of bleak, depressing ensemble dramas. I have huge admiration for his previous films (21 Grams is still his most accomplished work to date for me) and to see him take a change of direction yet produce a film which is every bit as captivating and engaging as this the film proves to any doubters his ability to tell a linear story paired with dazzling camerawork. Biutiful may have been linear but it was also conventional in its execution; Birdman is anything but.
Aside from a few fleeting moments the film plays out in essentially one single shot which is more than just a neat trick, although there are plenty of clever edits along the way. The ‘one shot’ makes these few frantic days feel all encompassing for there is nowhere for any character to hide and eyes are always on them; be that the theatre audience, stage hands, angry managers, autograph hunters, or us, the cinema audience. Much like the life of any ‘celebrity’, very little remains personal – unless it’s a vendetta from a theatre critic. Moreover, Iñárritu and DOP Emmanuel Lubezki (whose work in Hollywood film over the past 15 years in simply outstanding) do not keep all the action confined to one location; the camera roves around every room, hallway and inner workings of the theatre, into a crowded Times Square at night, into bars and cafes, and even to the top of tall buildings.
The camera never appears to stop and takes us on a rollercoaster ride the likes of which every other live action film this year with similar aims failed to reach. Think of the amazing camera work and seemingly unbroken shots in Gravity (which Lubezki also worked on) but add to that a screenplay and characters which are actually worth our time listening to.
If Birdman falters it’s in the lack of depth of the themes. Everything is up there on the screen but nothing is left for the audience to explore thematically; the dialogue tells us everything but leaves little to really think about once the film is over. There are a few quiet moments for reflection (a rooftop exchange between Norton and Stone offering the film’s most poignant scene of what is lost in youth and what cannot be regained) but I didn’t get that moment of utter wonderment that I got from Boyhood or Under The Skin, two films which are equally as original in their creativity but left me utterly compelled. Birdman takes us on an exciting journey but doesn’t offer anything deeper than what is on the screen.
Minor criticism aside and more than merely a gimmick, Birdman is a milestone in a narrative story telling with what can be done with ‘one shot’, the same way Hitchcock’s Rope was in 1948. Could I bestow a greater compliment than that?
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
You can listen to the Flickering Myth Podcast review of Birdman using the player below: