How curious that of all the directors currently working on Hollywood, it would be Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu that decided to make Birdman. In an amusing bit of meta-commentary, the Mexican director has decided to tell the story of a washed-up movie star who tries to revitalize his career by staging a “serious” play, meaning that almost in polar opposition to the protagonist of his movie, here we have a director who has been, up to this point, defined by his insufferable seriousness trying to give his career a breath of fresh air by doing a lighter, more comedic movie. At the end of the day, Iñárritu’s sensibilities might be too severe as to give in to the more ridiculous aspects of comedy (a hint is Birdman‘s “alternative” title The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). But even if I count myself among the many detractors of Iñárritu’s exhaustingly bleak previous output, which reached self-parody in 2010’s Biutiful, and even if I still have some doubts about Birdman0s greatness, this is far and away the best and most exciting movie of the director’s career.
The fact that Iñárritu is directing is just one of Birdman’s many meta-filmic elements. For starters, our protagonist Riggan Thomson, is an actor best remembered for playing the titular Birdman, the lead character of a successful 90s superhero franchise. Riggan is played by Michael Keaton, who you most likely remember as the man who played Batman in the late 80s and early 90s. Now that he’s older, Riggan is trying to gain some critical respect by adapting, directing, and starring on a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. We’re a few previews away from opening night, and Riggan is starting to lose his shit. Not only must he deal with such things as the problematic temperament of extremely “serious” method actor Mike (Edward Norton), and the asphyxiating presence of his just-out-of-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone), but he must wrestle his inner demons. And I mean inner demons rather literally, as he keeps hearing the voice of “Birdman” philosophizing in his head.
For the most part, Birdman shows us the world through Riggan’s point of view. Even though there are a number of scenes that occur while he’s not around (the question of whether these scenes exist only in Riggan’s may or may not be answered in subsequent viewings), we spent most of the time almost literally following Riggan, as Iñárritu and wunderkind cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki stage the movie as a seemingly uninterrupted single take (very similarly to Hitchcock’s Rope or the more recent Russian Ark). But while the visual conceit provides a fun gimmick as well as some gorgeous imagery (Emma Stone, and her eyes in particular, have never looked more beautiful), I feel like this tight focus on Riggan ends up being Birdman‘s biggest weakness.
Let me explain. The movie seems to be divided (like most Broadway plays) in two acts. The first one, while featuring a fair amount of fantastical elements, focuses pretty literally on the comings and goings of getting Riggan’s production to its opening night. This first half provides for the movie’s most hilarious moments. Edward Norton is particularly good in this part as an actor who is willing to bleed for the theater. The only way his performance could be more appropriate is if he secretly were Daniel Day-Lewis. Norton might be the stand-out, but the rest of the supporting cast gets its time to shine too. This includes Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Risenborough, and Naomi Watts, who once again proves that she is a much stronger comedic actress than Hollywood is willing to admit.
The second part of the movie, on the other hand, seems to take place almost entirely in Riggan’s head. This is the half that houses the movie’s visual and metaphorical centerpiece, as Riggan comes face to face with his super-heroic counterpart in an extended hallucinatory sequence. It’s not that the movie seizes to be entertaining, or that it runs out of steam, but rather that it’s in the second half that the movie must reveal what it is really about. It turns out this is basically another movie about an aging man having a midlife crisis that makes him reevaluate his life choices. The interesting thing is that Riggan’s dubious mental sanity brings up a couple of interesting questions by the end of the film (especially is you take into account my proposed conceit that the scenes in which he is absent take place in his head). Still, the fact remains that, thematically speaking, Birdman feels very familiar.
Now, the fact that I’m not entirely satisfied with the movie’s tight focus on Riggan’s psychology doesn’t mean that Keaton isn’t extraordinary in the role. He is bound to get an Oscar nomination for this performance, and with good reason. It’s true that Keaton never became as big a movie star as some of his contemporaries, but ever since he gave up the cowl he’s been popping up here and there with some very solid performances. His Riggan Thomson is a fantastic lead, deeply human, and instantly magnetic. Most of the movie rests on his shoulders, and he more than delivers. That ends up being my opinion of Birdman. Even its familiar touches can be excused thanks to the extraordinary execution.
Grade: 7 out of 10