Birdman is a big swinging bit of show-off filmmaking for everyone involved. Thankfully, the final result is wildly entertaining and just plain weird enough to justify all the grandstanding. No single member of the team succeeds more than Michael Keaton, for whom the film isn’t just a long overdue comeback, but likely the most challenging and downright nutty role that he’ll ever play.
Keaton stars as a flailing middle age actor named Riggan who’s perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The actor was famous in the 1990s for portraying a popular superhero known as Birdman, but since leaving that role he’s found it difficult to land work, never mind get recognized for his talents. The film takes place over a few tense days in which he attempts to mount a Broadway production of a Raymond Carver story in the hopes that it will finally establish him as a serious artist. Beyond the intense personal struggle keeping him on edge, Riggan also has a variety of other characters contributing to his potential breakdown. A supportive yet realistic best friend (Zach Galifianakis) reminds him of impending bankruptcy. A collection of neurotic actors is led by a self-destructive and combative Edward Norton. Riggan’s disapproving daughter (Emma Stone), fresh from rehab, is working as his assistant. To top it all off, he’s also started hearing the voice of Birdman in his head and seems to think he’s developing psychic powers.
So… that’s quite a bit to contend with, to say the least.
As a screenplay, ‘Birdman’ probably has a few too many balls in its juggling act. The film comes from writer-director Alejandro González Iñárritu (’21 Grams’, ‘Babel‘), whose sense of subtlety is akin to a New Year’s Eve parade amongst a gang of naked raging alcoholics on speed. Along with three other credited writers, Iñárritu attempts to make ‘Birdman’ a visceral depiction of a nervous breakdown, a satire of contemporary show business, an exploration of self-destructive artistic impulses, a depiction of neglectful parenting, a comment on narcissistic ignorance, a surrealistic fantasy, a realistic backstage drama, a personal tragedy, a goofy comedy, and a few other things all at once.
At best, the movie is a barrage of provocative ideas and hilarious images colliding into an explosion of entertainment. At worst, it so desperately wants the audience to think, feel and react that viewers will feel like they’ve been physically assaulted by the filmmaker. Thankfully, the movie succeeds far more often than not and offers such a wave of sensory overload at any given moment that it’s hard to notice the failings until the rush is over. At the very least, Iñárritu is in a playful mood for the first time since his debut ‘Amores Perros’, and the lack of relentless misery porn makes ‘Birdman’ much easier to swallow.
It certainly helps that the director has assembled one hell of a cast to bring everything together. At the center is of course Michael Keaton, on screen for almost every second of the running time and never given a moment to relax. From even the most slapstick comedy origins of his career, Keaton has been a performer who thrives on manic energy. (Let’s not forget that his small supporting role in ‘Beetlejuice’ exploded off the screen with such intensity that the movie was renamed after him.) In ‘Birdman’, he has a role that demands he be revved-up and out of control pretty much from Frame 1. Keaton gamely starts his energy level at 10 and finds a few more degrees to fly off the scale without losing credibility. He’s allowed to play for laughs as only he can, while also mining the pit of his darkest emotions, mocking his own career, and even engaging in a little fantasy via his Birdman hallucinations. The role feels custom designed for Keaton and so suited to show off his strengths that it’s impossible to imagine he’ll ever be better. The film is worth seeing for Keaton’s performance alone, and hopefully will spark off the comeback his character desperately desires in real life.
Edward Norton also gently pokes fun at his demanding and slightly pretentious reputation and delivers one of his most purely enjoyable performances in years. (The irony of the once ‘Incredible Hulk’ spewing out venomous monologues deriding the superhero obsessed film industry clearly wasn’t lost on either Iñárritu or Norton.)
Those two parts are so specifically geared to the actors’ strengths and biographies that you can’t help but wonder if the damaged daughter role was intended for a Lindsay Lohan type. Regardless, it’s for the best that it fell into Stone’s lap. She charms, smarms and whines it up with ease. Around the edges, folks like Galifianakis (who has much stronger acting chops than the ‘Hangover’ movies might suggest) and Naomi Watts steal a few scenes here and there. No one in the cast drops the ball for a second and that’s lucky since the nature of the production was such a technical challenge above all else.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention that Iñárritu and his genius cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (fresh off an Oscar for ‘Gravity’) decided to shoot the entire 119-minute movie to appear as though it takes place in one continuous take (minus an epilogue). If you’re used to spotting the mechanics of such effects, it’s obvious where the cuts are hidden, but that’s beside the point. Aside from being technically audacious, the roving single-take style also builds up a manic energy and intensity that suits the bubble-bursting plot perfectly. Even though the film is comprised primarily of dialogue scenes, there’s not a moment that doesn’t feel suspenseful or visually overwhelming.
Unfortunately, the technique required trimming certain scenes and monologues in the editing room that could have helped aid narrative flow. That’s a shame, since ‘Birdman’ is undeniably flawed in ways that could have been avoided, yet at the same time it’s hard to complain too much about such a weird, wild, wacky, wonderful, experimental and exhilarating (if exhausting) movie.
‘Birdman’ is one hell of a cinematic rush and a long overdue dream come true for anyone who has missed Michael Keaton. There’s certainly no other movie like ‘Birdman’ kicking around this year. Love it or hate it, the film demands to be seen. In my mind, it’s easily one of the best movies of the year. In your mind, it could be one of the worst. Either way, it’s safe to say you won’t forget it.