Birdman Review

Posted: November 15, 2014 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

birdman-clickWritten by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

Every so often, an actor will seem so perfectly suited for a character that it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part. This goes beyond giving an amazing performance; there’s some other, meta force that makes said actor the only real choice. One of the best examples of this in recent memory was Mickey Rourke’s turn in The Wrestler. Great performance, but it was the parallel comebacks for both the character and the actor which made it seem even more poignant. This year, we have a comparable case of an 80’s actor making a comeback in a role that seems no one else but he could play. That man is Michael Keaton, famous for playing a superhero in the 80s and 90s, plays an actor famous for doing just that in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new film Birdman.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a washed up Hollywood actor who made his name in the early 90s playing the superhero Birdman in a trilogy of films. He left the hit franchise, and his career floundered as Hollywood moved on, finding new superhero franchises to turn out. In an effort to find relevance once again, Riggan decides to write, direct, and star in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. In doing so, Riggan will need to deal with volatile and prima donna actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), as well as critics and audiences who resent him for trying to make a name on their stage. Additionally, the production brings out other issues with Riggan’s estranged wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), his mistress (Andrea Riseborough), and his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone). All of these issues come to a boiling point in the week leading up to the show’s opening night.

The man of the hour is almost certainly Keaton. It’s hard to watch the film and not be reminded of Keaton’s own career; his glory days as Batman in Tim Burton’s early films, and his contemporary obscurity. It’s not a total parallel. Keaton seems a very healthy and happy person in life, comfortable with what he has, whereas Riggan Thomson is a very disturbed individual, fighting off voices in his head, high stress levels, and depression. Anyway, Keaton’s performance is fantastic, fully embodying Riggan Thomson and his struggles. The film has a very theatrical quality which lends itself to the acting and Keaton does a good job playing that part up while still maintaining restraint and nuance. Given how Riggan plays an actor in the film, there are some scenes where the character is acting, and others where he’s being genuine. Keaton walks the line between when it’s “real” and when it isn’t very well. It’s also worth noting that the film is very much a dark comedy, and for Keaton especially, that means having to handle some really serious emotions mixed with humour. Keaton excels in this regard. There are points where you do laugh at Riggan’s misfortunes, but Keaton really pulls you in emotionally at the times where it’s needed.

Backing Keaton is a stellar supporting cast. Edward Norton gives one of his best turns in years as a pretentious actor who clashes with Riggan. There scenes together are hilarious and Norton really sells the part. Emma Stone also gives a strong performance as Riggan’s daughter. The two clash, but there’s clearly a connection between the two and Stone effectively brings a strong presence and emotion to the role. Also doing memorable work is stage actress Lindsay Duncan, who has a great scene as a theater critic with nothing but disdain for Riggan and his kind. Rounding out the cast is a mix of accomplished film actors like Naomi Watts and Amy Ryan, as well as actors one maybe wouldn’t expect to see like Andrea Riseborough and Zack Galifianakis. It’s an eclectic mix and kudos to Iñárritu for his strong casting.

Speaking of Iñárritu, this is quite the change of pace for him as a filmmaker. His previous movies were exceptionally bleak affairs and while Birdman certainly has dark elements, it is much lighter and more comedic than anything he’s done thus far. Iñárritu proves surprisingly adept at comedy and it doesn’t feel like he’s lost a step in the transition. The film is also a departure from his previous in other stylistic ways. While his previous films were often sprawling works defined by precise and energetic editing, Birdman is set almost entirely in one building and the cinematography is designed to appear as though it is all one shot. The focused setting allows the film to explore that world in great and effective detail, but obviously the real draw is the cinematography. It goes without saying that the technique is impressive in a technical sense. The film obviously wasn’t actually all filmed in one take, but the illusion is maintained, a fact made even more impressive by the fact that the film doesn’t take place in real time, but over a few days. Of course, all of this wouldn’t really matter if it didn’t add to the film, but I would say it does. First off, it helps give the film that theatrical feel were, like a stage play, all of the action takes place through long conversations between actors as different people come on and off stage. The other major reason is to place the viewer in Riggan’s headspace. He’s constantly being plagued by problems, personal and professional, and he is barraged by the public frequently. It’s a never ending onslaught and the one-shot technique further emphasizes this point. Additionally, it is important to note that even if the film was shot in a more conventional manner, the cinematography would still be noteworthy as the visual aesthetic Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki worked out is very strong and suits Birdman very well.

I’ve spoken a lot about why the film is good from various perspectives, but I haven’t touched much on any deeper meanings. First and foremost, the story on its own is very gripping. One becomes very invested in Riggan and wants to say his play succeed. Additionally, the emotional problems he’s going through are effective. In this regard, I think people just looking for a good story will be satisfied, but the film definitely has some deeper musings regarding celebrities, acting, and high art vs. low art. What I like about the film is how evenly it treats these topics. It may mock Hollywood for its obsession with unartistic fluff, but it’s just as mocking of the artistic crowd who are completely wrapped up in their own pretensions and belittle those seeking escapism. An interesting parallel is also drawn between audiences who just go to see a shallow action movie, and the people on Broadway who don’t have any real problems in life. Iñárritu isn’t really saying that either side is right or wrong, more exploring how the lines between high art and low art are not as clearly defined as they are thought to be.

Birdman is the kind of film I love in so many different ways. Its ambitious, unique, deep, very well-directed, has great acting, and strong characters. It has so many excellent pieces and I was completely in love with the film for most of the runtime. It does stumble at points, particularly in its ending, which I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about. Even with those mild reservations, I still wholeheartedly recommend Birdman. Many people will see it for Michael Keaton alone and while he is fantastic, he isn’t the only one. Birdman is one of the year’s best films.

A

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