‘Birdman’ Forever (Movie Review)

Birdman:  5 out of 5

Birdman: How did we end up here?

As if I needed more reasons to want to love Michael Keaton as a performer, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has given the actor a fantastic role that puts him back in the spotlight, in a film that puts heavy emphasis on what it is to mean something to many, only to want to redefine one’s self.  That is just one of the many ideas that Birdman tackles, as the film plays as a very entertaining dissection of Hollywood, Broadway, and the notion of fame in our modern culture.  Additionally, Inarritu was far from content with treating this project as a simple satirical exercise, so the film is made to show us the weeks that go by in this story within nearly one long take.  This shot is of course many shots carefully stitched together, but the screenplay is also a careful assemblage of ideas, themes, and great moments for all the actors to shine.  This makes Birdman an ambitious and unpredictable ball of energy that just so happens to be a spectacular film to watch.

It is interesting to examine the kind of triumph that I find this film to be.  Really, I found it difficult begin tackling a review for a film like this.  It tends to be that way for films I find myself in awe of.  I had an idea of what I was going to get with Birdman, but now having taken in a film I was excited to see and being elated by the fact that I loved it so much, analyzing it leaves me questioning what approach to take that allows for more than just heaps of praise on the cast, direction, and level of craft on display, thanks to the many talented filmmakers involved.  Really, it may be best to start with what may not play as well.

Birdman tells the story of an actor who is trying to make a comeback in a new way.  Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is best known for playing an iconic superhero, but after deciding to turn away from the role in favor of other work, he has washed out of Hollywood and now wants to reinvent himself for the stage.  To what purpose and how great of a performer can Thomson really be becomes just one of the questions this film wants you to understand, but Birdman is not about to make those answers seem clear.  Instead, the film pushes you in and out of Thomson’s mind, allowing you to question his state of mind, as he hears voices from his own alter ego, before taking time away from Thomson, as we see some of the other players and even come to understand the point of views seen by others. 

It is in these moments that allow for opposing views of what Thomson represents that that film seems to be testing us for possible reactions.  Lindsay Duncan has a small role as a theater critic, who is given a scene to really dig into the separation between Hollywood and Broadway, which could be taken a number of ways, given how the film is happy to portray many sides and opinions about what it means to represent popular culture in some manner.  Emma Stone co-stars in a similar role as Riggan’s daughter, who speaks for a different side of what it means to have fame and to be regarded for having a certain level of celebrity based on how they have embraced acting/being an artist in today’s culture.  It is these sort of facets that open the film up to discussion that is sure to come, as more and more people see Birdman, which is bound to gain attention come this award season, like it or not.  With all of that in mind, the film is also very entertaining.

Michael Keaton is fantastic in a role that easily sits as one of his career highlights.  Having always been happy to see him pop up in films over the years, with strong supporting work in more recent years, be it throwaway parts or fun comedic roles, having him back in a lead performance is very welcome.  Playing a character known for having played an iconic superhero is obviously hitting pretty close to Keaton’s own life, but his life and the life of Riggan Thomson are decidedly different, which allows Keaton to go to some neat depths that had me not concerning myself with how this parallels Batman and more focused on what he has done here as an actor.  The results are fantastic, which can be said about the rest of the cast to varying degrees as well.

Edward Norton co-stars as Mike Shiner, a theater actor, who has come in to replace one of the actors in this play that Thomson has put together himself.  Thomson has adapted a screenplay, is directing the play, and is starring in it, but Shiner is the kind of egomaniac who seems to confuse method work and integrity with upstaging Thomson at every turn.  Norton is hilarious here.  He is playing a role that seems to be almost lampooning his own supposed reputation as a control freak and it allows another way for this film to really feel like it knows what it is bringing up, regardless if the audience can clue into these little details.

The cast does not stop there either.  Along with Keaton, Norton, and Stone, the film has room for Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, and Zack Galifianakis.  It is not as if Birdman has nearly enough time for all of them to really show their sense of purpose, but this cast does click together incredibly well, with each of them getting their time to shine.  Being set almost entirely inside of New York’s St. James Theatre, we watch this entire cast constantly moving, running around, and talking to one another, as we see all the behind the scenes antics that lead to the various rehearsals and performances of the play.  It is marvelously captured by Emmanuel Lubezki (of Graivity and Children of Men fame) and fun to nearly the point of exhaustion, when it comes to considering the amount of work required to make this entire cast continually seem involved, while capturing the spirit of a production in process over the course of a few weeks, within the guise of one camera shot.

It should also be understood that Birdman is a weird movie.  There are conscious decisions made to provide a loopy sort of feeling for the film, given how it plays out in long takes, yet a lot of time is going by throughout the film, but even in how these people behave, the movie certainly operates in a world unto itself.  Given that the film does want to have a lot of fun poking at the state of the entertainment industry, it is not without a sense of humor, as the film is hilarious at times, darkly funny at others, but always high-spirited.  Even in scenes that are essentially characters taking down one another, the visual style creates a level of sustained momentum that not only allows you to take in the impressive work by the actors, but also find yourself acknowledging how great the special effects work is in a film that also features one major CG-based scene that becomes less impressive compared to the simplicity of camera movement in this film.  Lastly, given that Birdman makes these visuals work, having a mix of classical music and an offbeat drum-based score by Antonio Sanchez only heightens the weirdness of this film further, but not in a way that masks what I consider brilliance.

Birdman is terrifically exciting in many ways.  The fantastic cast all put forward the effort required, with Michael Keaton leading the path and delivering some of his best work ever.  Inarritu’s vision for this film leads to something that is genuinely exciting to see unfold, given how imaginative he was in creating a film set mostly in the backstage of a theater.  Emmanuel Lubezki matches Inarritu’s ideas with his handling of the cinematography for this film, which, along with the editing work by Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione, let alone the special effects work done, creates a terrifically fluid sense of motion that establishes the identity of this film.  All of this is brought together by a script that is nuanced in some ways, very deliberate in others, but always intriguing, given the many themes and ideas being presented.  Be it an eventual Oscar-winner or a cult classic brimming with greatness, Birdman soars in so many ways.

Riggan Thomson: I got a chance to do something right.  I gotta take it.


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