Review by-Jarrett Leahy
Riggan Thomson, a washed up movie star best known for playing the superhero, Birdman, attempts to rejuvenate his floundering career by directing and starring in an adaptation of the Broadway play, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” But as a myriad of mounting pre-production disasters pushes Riggan to the brink of a nervous collapse, he must fight back his personal inner demons, and a vindictive theater critic, or risk losing everything he has desperately poured into this laborious comeback.Born in Mexico City, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is a filmmaker who, sadly, doesn’t get the recognition and acknowledgment from the average moviegoer his undeniable talents should demand. A two-time Academy Award nominee, Inarritu’s films, Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel, have been critical darlings that helped earn him the reputation among his peers as being one of the most ambitious and creative working directors in the business. After a four-year hiatus, Inarritu is back with what just might be his most challenging and visionary creation, Birdman.
Set in the famed St. James Theatre in New York City, the story of Birdman was brought to the screen by the writing partnership of Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, and Armando Bo, who had all previously worked together on the screenplay for Inarritu’s 2010 foreign drama, Biutiful. First-time screenwriter Alexander Dinelaris also assisted in the writing of the film’s intricate screenplay. Inarritu’s vision for Birdman was an ambitious one, creating a film that felt as if it were one single, continuous shot. Despite being advised by the late Mike Nichols of the impending disaster this filming style would unleash, Inarritu went barreling ahead, bringing in Oscar winning director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, The Tree of Life, Children of Men) to help meticulously map out all aspects of every scene, with the hope of seamlessly capturing the continuous action of this chaotic theater production. Many of the actors involved describe Birdman’s thirty-day shooting schedule as the most challenging movie they’ve ever been involved with. The film’s lead actors were asked to perform multiple pages of dialogue at a time while hitting precise spots at exact moments. The extraordinary efforts asked by all involved paid off tenfold, as Birdman’s visuals are truly in a class by themselves. Cameras continuously follow characters on and off stage, up stairs and down hallways, giving the moviegoer a rare, singular experience never before seen on screen.
The surface comparisons between the story of Riggan Thomson career of Michael Keaton, the actor playing Riggan, are impossible to ignore. During the 1980’s, Michael Keaton was one of the most prominent and famous leading men in Hollywood, peaking in the box office-busting portrayal of the Caped Crusader in Tim Burton’s Batman. Similar to the circumstances that surround his character in Birdman, Keaton’s career path since Batman has been a slow yet steep fall from leading man to supporting player. Prior to this unexpected reemergence in fact, Keaton’s last leading role was back in 2008 when he starred in his own directorial debut, the little known film, The Merry Gentlemen. As the protagonist of Birdman, Keaton offers a perceptive, quick-witted portrayal that fearlessly explores, through an amusing assortment of internal monologues, the inner turmoil of a man on the verge of completely breaking from reality. Without a complete commitment to the over-the-top absurdity of this unhinged character, Riggan Thomson, and in turn the entire film, could have come across as a smug and ludicrous disaster. However, through Keaton’s observant and astute portrait, Birdman remains uncommonly engrossing throughout.
Equally impressive are the numerous outstanding supporting performances led by the ever-splendid talents of Edward Norton. A method actor with an exceptional ability to play a multitude of diverse characters, there’s little denying that Norton is one the most gifted and underrated performers of the last two decades. Amusingly, Norton’s character in Birdman, Mike, is a caricatured parody of the behind-the-scenes reputation some have ascribed to Norton himself. Self-absorbed, abrasive, difficult to work with, Mike is an acrimonious prick who gets away with many of his narcissistic antics because of his undeniable talents as an actor. Norton revels in this satirical exaggeration, bringing a true level of cynicism to this egotistical prima donna. Yet for all his character’s glaring flaws, it’s Norton’s adept ability to change emotions and moods on a dime that adds an amusing hubris and buffoonery to his character that plays perfectly with the rest of the film’s chaotic ridiculousness.
A comedian best known for playing more outlandish, over-the-top characters, Zach Galifianakis delivers another of the film’s surprisingly versed performances. Similar to how I felt about Melissa McCarthy in St. Vincent, it was quite a refreshing shock to witness Galifianakis offer a more subtle portrayal of Riggan’s lawyer, producer, and best-friend Jake. And I mustn’t forget to mention the film’s cast of accomplished actresses, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, and Andrea Riseborough, all of whom brought to the screen notable portrayals that further accentuated the underlying acumen of this singular story.
Offering acute commentary about the fleeting search for recognition and relevancy in the internet age, Birdman delivers amusing observations about the hypocrisy of critics and the incessant snobbery surrounding the perceived talents of theater actors in comparison to those deemed only “movie stars.” Blessed with a slew of outstanding performances, Birdman seems to be the venue that will finally earn its leading man, Michael Keaton, the overwhelming critical success he never quite received during his heyday. While the everyday movie fan may not fully grasp the impressive masterpiece Inarritu and Lubezki were able to create, make no mistake, Birdman is a technical marvel filled with astonishing visuals that flawlessly accentuate the story’s fantastical and quirky narrative. While it sadly may never reach the box office success of the likes of The Hunger Games 3 or Transformers 4, Birdman’s legacy will undoubtedly far exceed those blockbusters for many years to come.