A film review by Craig J. Koban November 21, 2014

 Rank: #2


2014, R, 120 mins.


Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson  /  Emma Stone as Sam  /  Zach Galifianakis as Jake  / Edward Norton as Mike  /  Naomi Watts as Leslie /  Andrea Riseborough as Laura

Directed by Alejandro González Ińárritu  /  Written by Alexander Dinelaris, Alejandro González Ińárritu, Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone

BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) is a masterpiece of directorial choreography.  It just might be one of the most audaciously envisioned and executed films that I’ve seen in an awfully long time.  

Not only is it a bravura showpiece of remarkable filmmaking ingenuity (more on that later), but BIRDMAN also is a deeply intimate and insular look the daily grind of the New York theater scene and the intense pressures involved with putting on a production.  Moreover, the film is a droll and pointed satire of our time, especially aiming its crosshairs on needy and egomaniacal Broadway players as well as how former movie stars that drove multi-million dollar studio franchises hit rock bottom and try to pathetically eek out an existence in more artistically rewarding waters.  There’s a lot going on in BIRDMAN, but it all gels together with an exhilarating fluidity that makes for one dynamic filmgoing experience. 

That, and BIRDMAN also sort of works on a sly undercurrent as a meta-film about the career of star Michael Keaton, whose character in the film – a semi-washed up actor that once starred in a highly commercial super hero film franchise in the early 1990’s (sound eerily familiar?) and now has trouble getting work as a serious performer – has more than a fleeting resemblance to the star’s own past history with the Batman franchise.  The strong parallels between Keaton’s own past and recent career – the latter being beset by largely forgettable supporting roles in equally forgettable films – with that of the character he portrays in BIRDMAN shows him as both a remarkably good sport and a movie star that sheds away his vanity to explore his own career woes through BIRDMAN.  Now a ripe 63, Keaton here looks wiser and more withered, but just as unpredictably unhinged as he did in some of his greatest roles.  If anything, BIRDMAN marks a triumphant rallying cry and reminder of Keaton’s inherent on-screen magnetism; he’s on screen here for nearly every scene and he carries the film in one of his greatest performances. 

BIRDMAN opens on a shot of grand metaphysical mystery: we meet Riggan Thomson (Keaton) – wearing nothing but his underwear – sitting in a lotus position and…levitating a few feet above the ground.  He looks at relative peace, but he’s frequently at odds with a stern and gravel voiced entity that speaks to him within his subconscious.  Riggan was once a prominent movie star that played a superhero named, yes, BIRDMAN, a spiritual cousin – visually at least - to Batman that was turned into a billion dollar studio franchise.  Believing that he didn’t want to become pigeonholed and typecast as a flamboyant super hero, Riggan abruptly quit the film series just as it was at the zenith of its popularity…and afterwards barely kept his career alive.  He desperately wants to achieve a level of artistic success that the Birdman films didn’t grant him, but his post-comic book hero career stalled and never recovered.   



Riggan, though, is plotting something rather daring to jumpstart his dying career.  He wishes to pull an Orson Welles and write, direct, and star in a play adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE.  Despite having emotional support from his adoring agent/friend/producer, Jake (Jack Galifianakis), Riggan is a nervous wreck during preview week, mostly because he’s broke and has every penny he has left in the world invested in his play, but more because he has to begrudgingly replace his leading star – who was injured on set – with Mike (Ed Norton), a Brando-like talent that has a frustrating knack for being difficult to work with.  Adding fuel to Riggan’s already sky-high anxiety is that his main star Leslie (Naomi Watts) is a greenhorn making her Broadway debut and his lover Laura (Andrea Riseborough) abruptly announces that she’s pregnant.  Making matters worse is the presence of Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who recently left rehab and is an emotional handful.  Then there is a local theater critic that has the power to end a play with one bad review that seems hell bent on destroying Riggan’s new stage career before it even has a chance to start.   

BIRDMAN was directed by Oscar nominated filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (BABEL and BIUTIFUL) and he takes great pains throughout BIRDMAN to make viewers constantly feel like a fly-on-the-wall observer of the chaotic back-stage and on-stage politics of Riggan’s hellishly stressful world.  Inarritu’s whole approach is as ingenious as it is daring: he constructed the entirety of BIRDMAN (sans a couple of sequences that bookend the film) to come off as one long continuous shot without any visible edits.  Now, I consciously realized that this was a filmmaking impossibility without thoughtful and crafty usage of editing and digital tinkering, but Inarritu – using CHILDREN OF MEN cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki – bobs and weaves his camera through impossible spaces and time jumps, given viewers an unmistakable aura that BIRDMAN was indeed captured in a single take.  This “gimmick” has precedent before (Hitchcock did it in ROPE decades earlier), but it’s never been attempted on the scale and scope as its shown here.  The camera closes in, at times, on close-ups capturing the characters at their most vulnerable, and then joyously sweeps past them – oftentimes spilling over from the stage interiors and into the crowded New York streets – without apparently missing a beat.  The result is positively jaw dropping throughout; there’s rarely a moment in the film when its artifice seems unconvincing. 

BIRDMAN, despite being a triumph on a pure technical level, also engages in shrewd and self-aware commentary on the very nature of stardom, fame, and what it means to be a “serious” actor of range and worth.  Inarritu seems to be mocking and dissecting the Hollywood blockbuster machine as of late, which has churned out one super hero flick after another (most of which, to be fair, have been pretty solid).  There’s a contrasting of the money-grabbing imperative of the super hero genre movie world and that of smaller, more low-key artistic stage productions and an examination of the way former big name movie stars try to rekindle their once unstoppable careers by going back to their theater roots.  BIRDMAN also wisely points a wagging finger of shame at obtuse-minded critics that are willing to go out of their way to give a stage production a bad review – no matter how good or bad the play may be – because a member of the ex-Hollywood elite has perverted the artform by his/her presence.  BIRDMAN unquestionably wowed me with its meticulous craftsmanship, but the fact that it's also emotionally rich and stimulating for what it has to say as an industry satire is just icing on the proverbial cake. 

I’ve always admired Michael Keaton as an actor; he’s one of those rare double-threat breeds of on-screen performers that is able to bridge the gap between comedy and drama with a relative seamlessness.  He’s never been more electrifying and charismatic as Riggan, a character that falls in and out of a perpetual sinkhole self-loathing, career uncertainty, and unbridled madness throughout BIRDMAN, and Keaton – despite his advancing years – still has that devilishly youthful twinkle of danger and intrigue in his eyes to sell his character’s evolution in the film (he’s never won an Oscar and has incredulously never even been nominated, but he makes a strong case for it here).  A virtuoso ensemble of sturdy and dependable actors flanks Keaton as well; his interplay with Norton – who has a field day playing up to his role’s cocky and narcissistically headstrong nature – makes for a nice foil to Riggan’s mental implosion.  Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, and, in particular, Emma Stone shine brightly in their supporting turns as well.   

I’ve been careful not to spoil the rich wellspring of surprises that accentuate BIRDMAN’s story, but I will say that it captures the milieu of actors on the edge of breakdown and the backstage shenanigans the go on during a play’s inception and production better than most other similar films I’ve seen.  Inarritu’s film, despite frequently tiptoeing into a purely fantastical fights of fancy, thoroughly feels lived-in and tangible in presenting a stage world of warring egos and conflicting performance motives.  BIRDMAN just feels propulsively alive throughout (the jazzy drum-heavy musical score by Antonio Sanchez joyously and flawlessly compliments the film’s visuals and performances).  It’s so very rare to bare witness to a film that confidently and courageously blends a cutting-edge production aesthetic with remarkable acting, a thematic complexity, and a darkly funny satirical tenacity.  BIRDMAN is such a film.   

Plus, the film returns Michael Keaton back to the movie world as one of its most empowered and riveting actors.  Welcome, back, good sir.  A lot of us have missed you.

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