Even from its opening credits Birdman percolates with frenetic energy. As I registered the expressive jazz percussion, the incomprehensible visual flashes and the thematic thesis of Raymond Carver’s epitaph, I took a moment to settle into my seat in the second to last row of Old City’s Ritz 5, preparing myself for what was to follow. I left the theater two hours later knowing I had seen something special; something smart, original and very funny. This is a film that feels through and through like the jazzy score it employs: flowing, free form, sometimes dissonant, always impressive.
Birdman is a major achievement for director and co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu. I’m a huge fan of his earlier work (Amores Perros, 21 Grams), but by 2006’s Babel he’d begun to drown in his own solemnity. This film, however, is a breath of fresh air, ultimately more of a comedy than anything else, but still managing to allow for moments of real sadness and existential crisis. Michael Keaton (in a career-resuscitating performance if there ever was one) plays Riggin Thompson, an over-the-hill actor known singularly and perpetually for his role as the franchise super hero “Birdman” (clearly a reference to the actor’s real life resume). Keaton’s Thompson is now directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (a short story written by the aforementioned Raymond Carver) in an attempt to prove himself as a serious actor (“…and that’s why I turned down Birdman 4.”). But money problems, an antagonistic critic, a mercurial co-star and Thompson’s own insecurities threaten to derail the production at every turn.
The film unfolds over the course of several days and largely takes place among the narrow, winding backstage hallways of New York City’s legendary St. James Theater. Emmanuel Lubezki’s meandering camera is a perfect fit for the setting and subject matter, elegantly framing the film’s visual and thematic motifs of “what goes on backstage”. For his work here, Lubezki could easily find himself with another Best Cinematography Oscar, one to keep the statue he received for last year’s Gravity company. Birdman is essentially composed as a single two-hour-long shot, an effect achieved by masterful blocking and a few cleverly hidden cuts. Rather than reading as gimmicky, this technique adeptly typifies the frantic pace of a large scale theatrical production, a dizzying milieu of co-star confrontations, potential production disasters and epic dressing room freak-outs.
Keaton, a very talented actor, is tasked with portraying a decidedly mediocre actor, and his success in that regard exemplifies his understanding of the craft. He bumbles when needed, delivers stiff line readings when it makes sense for the story, but also delivers moments of real, raw emotion that he’s rarely had the chance to put across. Several actors in Birdman riff on versions of their perceived selves, the best example being Edward Norton (in what might be a career best performance) as the impetuous thespian Mike Shiner. Norton’s method actor is pretentious, yes, but also acts as the film’s ambassador of artistic integrity, a worthy foil to Keaton’s Hollywood big shot. Their first scene together, working through the beats and undercurrents of a particular scene, was without a doubt one of my favorite cinematic exchanges of the year. Norton exudes a cocky, almost jock-like, quality that’s even more intimidating because of just how good he is. Zach Galifianakis is also quite good, if a little too silly at times, as Keaton’s best friend and long suffering producer, but he plays the straight man so well (and against audience expectation) that it might have been a more interesting choice to have him fully commit to that role. Naomi Watts is excellent as usual in a relatively less showy role, and Emma Stone’s turn as Thompson’s daughter/assistant displays her range more so than any other role to date.
My only substantial criticism of Birdman is that it drags a bit towards the end. There were several scenes that I was sure were the last, and at times I had trouble making sense of what the film was trying to say with it’s most surreal and expressionistic sequences (entertaining though they may be). This flaw, however, does little to dampen the overall impact, and I found myself caring less and less about it as time passed.
Perhaps I was charmed by the film’s pointed potshots at the critical profession. In one key scene Thompson confronts a powerful theater critic who seems intent on destroying his play, not because of the quality of the play itself but because of who Thompson is: an artistic lightweight in over his head, a wannabe, certainly not a “real” actor. But as Thompson angrily retortes, the critic risks nothing, the artist, everything. The same could be said for Iñárritu and Keaton, both of whom took a big risk in creating such an offbeat, self-parodying film. The risk paid off, and Birdman is one of the best films of 2014.