FILM REVIEW - BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)
Running Length: 119 minutes
Cast: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Zach Galiafanakis, Andrea Riseborough
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., Armando Bo
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Distributed by: Fox Searchlight
Birdman is cinema at its very best.
It speaks volumes about the current ubiquity of the comic book movie that Birdman’s relatively small but impressive ensemble cast includes alumna and alumni from two Batmans, two Spider-Mans one (not so) Incredible Hulk, and a Tank Girl in a pear tree. Michael Keaton (who, with Tim Burton, helped kickstart this trend a quarter century ago before walking away from the role and leaving the batsuit in the grubby hands of Joel Schumacher) plays Riggan Thompson, a past-his-prime actor famous a quarter century ago for playing the role of Birdman before walking away from the role and into obscurity. It’s all very meta… and quite brilliant.
Thompson has staked what’s left of his reputation, wealth and sanity on a Broadway adaption of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” His struggle is not for critical acclaim, but to prove his artistic credibility and self-worth to those that still acknowledge his presence, including ex-wife (Amy Ryan), girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) and disinterested daughter (Emma Stone). Whatever modicum of dignity Thompson has retained is lost when the strictly method Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) steps into the role of second lead, and his unhinged attempts at verisimilitude and authenticity derail the production. Thompson is concurrently tormented by the gravel-voiced internal monologue of his Birdman alter ego. He manifests telekinetic powers which may or may not be the by-product of his psychosis, and is on the verge of a breakdown.
Also, 99% of the movie is presented as a single steadycam long take.
The interplay between Keaton and Norton’s characters raises questions on artistic creativity, the nature of celebrity, ego and the relationship between the artist and the critic. Keaton delivers a career-best performance that is commendably free from vanity and ego. This doesn’t leave much room for either Riseborough or Naomi Watts to make much of an impression, and, with the exception of Stone’s acerbic addict-in-recovery, the female parts are generally underdeveloped. Some misguided social networking references to “trending” will soon appear as obsolete as Bebo, and will sadly age the film prematurely.
Keaton has always been a better actor than suggested by the roles he’s offered, and hopefully this performance will afford him a deserved break from bit-part guff like Robocop or Need for Speed. He will be fielding questions on how much he could relate to the part of Thompson for the foreseeable future (although I suspect that this will be a welcome relief from journalists asking him how much he enjoyed working with Lindsay Lohan on Herbie: Fully Loaded).
Birdman is cinema at its very best. The long take device could easily have been a gimmick that drew unnecessary attention to the mode of production, but instead adds to the total immersion of the viewer and gives cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, Gravity) the chance to employ some wonderfully innovative temporal transitions. In an industry where risk-taking is anathema and formulaic rehashes and remakes-by-committee is the preferred modus operandi, Iñárritu has taken an original concept, added some dark humour absent from his previous work, and executed it in a wilfully experimental manner. It is a brilliantly realised piece that proves that the medium of film is still capable of surprising with something fresh and unseen. In an ideal world, such creativity and originality should be rewarded with the kind of mass audience that we reserve for the most generic of blockbusters. It skirts greatness and is very close to a masterpiece. We may be barely into January, but Birdman could well be the film of 2015.