“Birdman” is unlike any motion picture you’re likely to see this year. It’s one of those wholly creative endeavors that shows just how artistically empowering the moving frame can be.
Starring “Batman” alum Michael Keaton in arguably his best role of his long career, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel) crafts a topsy-turvy dramedy of epic — and meta — proportions.
It’s been quite some time — 25 years to be exact — since Michael Keaton donned the bat-cape that would forever define his illustrious and somewhat erratic acting career. And while the press notes make it glaringly clear that Keaton in no way feels any similarities to the Riggan Thomson character he becomes, the general public will undoubtedly make connections between the two. That’s because the actor plays a well past-his-prime former superhero actor looking to regain credibility and relevance in the quickly evolving world around him. Sound like any other actor in Hollywood currently?
Maybe, maybe not. I think it sounds a lot like Keaton’s own acting journey, but who am I to defy what is written in the press notes? In any case, Riggan the character goes about reclaiming his rightful place in acting history by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play based on a short story by Raymond Carver. For the most part, Keaton’s character is simply known as Riggan, but hidden deep inside the man is another alternative personality that goes by Birdman. Birdman is the reason why Riggan became famous in the first place. And just like the struggling actor couldn’t shake the spandex clad character in Hollywood, he can’t seem to rid its presence from the back of his mind either. In its gruff, Bruce Wayne-esque voice, Birdman is both Riggan’s number one fan and worst enemy. He flies, walks, and talks to the character throughout the entire movie. And when you’re trying to revive your career in the form of a play that’s opening up in just a couple of weeks, this omnipresent invisible friend definitely gets more than just a little bit annoying.
While the film spans a period of roughly two weeks — from the play’s sneak previews to opening day — the movie floats seamlessly between days and hardly ever fades in or out. It’s mesmerizing to watch unfold and it’s a process the always-inspiring cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) frames to perfection. The end result allows the audience to drift from character to character, scene to scene as if living one, extended foggy dream…or maybe it’s a nightmare. Whatever you call it, it’s pretty epic. Every scene ends just at that single moment that leaves the audience wanting more. With camera angles that focus on the talent for takes lasting 6, 7, and even 8 minutes at a time, it’s important to have some pretty amazing actors onboard. “Birdman’s” cast is that and then some.
Emma Stone (The Amazing Spiderman) is perfect as Riggan’s drug loving daughter, as is his manager Jake played by Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover). Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone), Edward Norton (Fight Club) and Naomi Watts (The Impossible) also put in great performances that are equally deserving of praise. Norton, playing a hardened theater veteran, and Ryan, standing in for Riggan’s ex-wife, are especially brilliant. While all of these Oscar nominated stars are fantastic, it is Keaton’s gutsy performance that steals the show again and again. The audience cannot help but feel as if the aging actor is one step away from suicide or a phoenix-style rebirth. It’s darkly funny and maddening how well the star is able to suck us in and toy with our emotions with every decision Riggan makes.
Just like Keaton careens back and forth between comic and tragic, so too does Inarritu’s script. He, along with co-writers Nicolas Giacobone (The Last Elvis), Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo (Biutiful), does an exceptional job creating moments and bits of dialogue that fluctuate between polar emotions. It’s a slightly depressing experience, but somehow satisfying in the end. Even the musical score by Antonio Sanchez mirrors this concept. Filled with the beats and bangs of a jazz drummer warming up, the music is nonetheless a crazily crafted crescendo of percussive prowess at its heart. And while it might not sound like music to the ears for most, it definitely gets Inarritu’s point across. The point being that it’s really tough to make a melody out of life when there is so much ugly noise going on around you. Failed marriages. Angry offspring. Unattained potential. Etc., etc.
At its core, “Birdman” is a heartfelt and hilarious semi-lucid dream of a movie that is 100% entertaining and, if possible, even more original. Benefiting from exceptional performances from star Michael Keaton and his supporting cast, it’s a film that shouldn’t be forgotten. It seems destined to be the center of attention once Oscar season gets under way next year. Something tells me this is exactly the critical praise Riggan would want to hear. I’m sure Keaton wouldn’t mind the rekindled fame either.
By David Morris
Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence
Running Time: 119 minutes