Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Writers: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris & Armando Bo
Stars: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Emma Stone
Release Date: August 27, 2014 (Venice Film Festival) / October 17, 2014
Birdman is a timely, timeless and well-timed exploration of the worth of superheroes and the actors who play them. This is a truly tremendous undertaking and Michael Keaton has never shined brighter.
During rehearsal a stage-light falls on one of the lead actors, knocking him out of commission for the preview performances, let alone opening night, of "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." What follows is one of countless walk-and-talk sequences set in the backstage hallways of a labyrinthian theater. Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) leads the way back to his room while Jake (Zach Galifianakis) follows close behind. Riggan is the writer, director and lead actor of his own play. Jake is his producer, assistant and best friend. They discuss who they can get to fill the role. Michael Fassbender is tied up shooting X-Men movies. Jeremy Renner? Nah, they put him in a cape too.
Riggan's rise to fame was playing Birdman, a superhero the studio turned into a franchise with two sequels. Instead of doing Birdman 4 he left Los Angeles for New York City, determined to prove his worth on the stage. It's apparent that some years have washed him up in the meantime. The meta curtains of this production are near translucent. After all, Michael Keaton is famous for playing Batman in 1989. It's still his most "Known For" role when you go to his IMDb page. He hasn't had a lead role in a number of years and it's difficult to say who is more of a fading star, Michael Keaton or Riggan Thomas. Who do they get to fill the role of that head-bonked actor? Mike Shiner. He's played by Ed Norton, "Known For" The Incredible Hulk.
In a day when renowned stage actors have become movie stars whom we put capes and masks on and assign superheroes, Birdman could not have possibly arrived at a more opportune time. Just this week it was announced that Robert Downey Jr. would be playing Iron Man for a fifth time, likely collecting tens of millions for his involvement. When Riggan is in his room he sees Downey Jr. on the TV and all-too similar story being reported, he turns it off with a magical flick of his hand. It appears Riggan has retained some of the telekinetic abilities of his movie character, at least in his increasingly unstable imagination.
The poster for Birdman 3 hangs upon Riggan's wall, mocking what has become of his career while a cynical inner-voice berates him from the very beginning. Birdman puts us in the headspace of the privileged yet passed-by working actor. It's a 2-hour experience that unfolds mostly in real-time. The result is a delirious and daring discourse on staging a comeback, but can any amount of success on the stage or screen make up for the shortcomings in one's personal life?
Birdman is as flashy as films come. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and his trusty cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have blocked every complex shot to noticeable perfection. It calls attention to itself because it relies on long takes (or as I like to call the digital altered imitations, "long fakes") throughout. The decision is gorgeous gimmickry, a way to make a film consisting almost entirely of conversations utterly cinematic. Lubezki has given us some of the most visually stunning films in modern cinema (Children of Men and The Tree of Life); once again he's captured an oxymoronic feeling of natural choreography.
Iñárritu challenged conventions yet again with the film's score. It's provided by Antonio Sanchez, a one-man jazz drumming machine! As the opening credits are stamped to existence in unpredictable chunks of letters, the drum kit is stroked in matching order. Sanchez is even seen a couple times throughout the film, acting as a diegetic source of sounds in the roaming Steadicam shots. It's another brilliant decision to match the one-man show that Riggan seems to be living. (If nothing else it's a reminder of the most-excellent Whiplash, a jazz drumming thriller starring Miles Teller that's concurrently in select theaters.)
Keaton is a force that should have never been forgotten. It feels as if this performances has been building up inside of him all these years and he's finally popping the cork. Emma Stone plays Sam, Riggan's daughter. Their relationship consists of mutual misunderstandings, but is one of the film's crucial dynamics. Norton is one of the funnest actors to watch act while they act. For Mike Shiner the stage is his backstage: it's the closest he comes to being intimate with his co-star and lover played by Naomi Watts. Birdman is a dark comedy that frequently drops dramatic weight, able to shift tone in a single sentence. The pedigree of talent pulls this off over the course of the emotional, hilarious and ultimately stressful running time.
There is so much packed into the walls of Birdman that it feels like a film we'll be dissecting for years to come. Already it's proving divisive, which is wonderful. Would an artist want it any other way? The role of criticism plays a character within the film (embodied by Lindsay Duncan). Birdman is uniquely 2014; not just the state of movies, but the way we talk about them and where we are talking about them. It's not the first time in movies this year we've seen a child show their parent the woes and wonders of Twitter (see the under-appreciated Chef) and what it means to be "trending."
Alejandro González Iñárritu and his cast/crew know very well what is popular at the box office and what is a hit with the critics. Birdman even teases us with a glimpse of how it could be like The Avengers, but it's much more interested in what will become of our heroes and the actors who play them when the smoke has cleared and the masses have marched on. In one scene Riggan Thomas gets locked out of the theater with his robe caught in the door. All I saw after that was Michael Keaton scurrying through the bustling and parading streets of New York in his underwear: An actor exposed in desperation and the efforts of those around him to take a picture with their phones. Maybe some will simply think they're finally filming Birdman 4.