by Ken B.
Often with a piece of art, the first implied question a reader asks a critic is “What is it?” With Birdman, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s new film, the question you should ask is “What isn’t it?” This is a thrilling, fast moving, wild, cynical, dark, and original movie. It is flawed, but that somehow makes things better. It features phenomenal performances, a breathtaking technical setup, and a mile-a-minute screenplay. It has a complex worldview, and we’re ready to hear it and process it. It doesn’t matter if you agree with it or not – you’ll be too blown away by its fluidity and professionalism to be distracted by such matters.
Michael Keaton is simply brilliant in the lead role. He plays Riggan Thomson, an actor from years ago who was famous for playing Birdman in a series of superhero films from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Now, in the present day, in a last-ditch attempt to rejuvenate his career, he is on Broadway at the St. James Theatre, writing, directing, and starring in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, an adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story of the same name. A daunting task upon itself, infinitely more complicated by the matters surrounding it – when one of his actors is injured before the first preview, he must replace him with demanding method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). Riggan also must deal with his estranged daughter Sam (Emma Stone) and the ever mounting pressure of the environment that he’s dealt – an unshakable stigma as a faded star from yesteryear, a vicious New York Times theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) who hates with a passion Hollywood celebrities coming to Broadway, and plans to user her influence to shut down Riggan’s play – raising the question if the production, or Riggan himself, can make it through in one piece.
The main “gimmick” of Birdman, as you may have heard, is that nearly all of the movie has the illusion of it being filmed in one shot. While cuts are apparent in some points, the effect is successful enough that the little holes don’t matter. It’s an incredible achievement from Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and it really does further the urgent nature of the plot, and the theatre-based setting. What must have been among the most difficult scenes to mount, a tongue-in-cheek “action” scene with explosions, soldiers, and crashing helicopters, is handled flawlessly. Other fantastical scenes, such as one where a character flies through the streets of New York City, maintain the one-take trick.
But I don’t want you to think that this movie is 119 minutes worth of precious magical realism. It’s not. At its core, Birdman poses deep questions of the meaning of art, how it is viewed, and how mass appeal in pop culture threatens to destroy it in the name of commerce – the aforementioned action scene is done in the demonstration that many audiences just want big explosions, not dreaded “art”, like Riggan is trying to create. Additionally, the movie uses its main character to address identity, and how we are all, to an extent, pigeonholed into a type. He’s constantly viewed as Birdman, and nothing else. It’s what the crowd calls him after he’s locked out of the back door St. James’ Theatre in his underwear, and must walk through a packed Times Square and back through the entrance, in one of the film’s most hectic and memorable sequences. During a press conference, when he mentions how he turned down Birdman 4 back in 1992 for a reason, a foreign reporter leaps in excitement at the title of the movie, thrilled in his belief that the actor will don the superhero outfit again, not knowing the context of the reference. Iñárritu, along with his co-writers Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo, have crafted something mostly exemplary with the script, even if it does border on self-indulgent more than once when expressing the foundations and philosophy it’s built upon.
Part of it almost seems too coincidental to be anything else but planned from page one of the script, that Keaton, of all actors, would portray someone known for playing a superhero 20+ years ago, now perceived as “washed-up”. While everyone involved adamantly denies the role of Riggan Thomson being written for anyone in particular, whether or not these claims pan out, it’s hard to deny Keaton’s closeness to his character, and this comes through in a truly inspired and dedicated performance. We see Birdman through him, sometimes literally. And the rest of the cast is superb as well. Edward Norton plays off his own reputation as a difficult individual to work with in an energetic showing as a method actor who gets a little too into his parts. Emma Stone, as Sam, might not have the biggest role, but she’s no doubt responsible for some of the movie’s most important scenes and monologues. Zach Galifianakis offers some great support as Jake, Riggan’s friend, lawyer, and one of the play’s producers.
Backed with a (sadly Oscar-ineligible) score from Antonio Sánchez, a pounding, free, drum beat-heavy creation, Iñárritu definitely turns in an “experience” of a movie. It might not be for everyone – the humor too dark, the views too cynical, or maybe a case of it just being “too weird”, but for viewers in the mood for an examination and dissection of celebrity culture, the state of art, and much more, Birdman delivers and then some, closing as a witty, thoughtful, and manic movie, packed to the brim with concepts, and flooring you with the way they’re presented. Have fun.