If there’s one thing I regret about this gig (this awesome, awesome gig) it would that I rarely, if ever, get to see a movie a second time before reviewing it. This doesn’t usually change much, as my opinion doesn’t change much on second viewings, although if I’d managed to see Seven Psychopaths a second time it definitely would have been on my top 10 for 2012…that’s not relevant to this paragraph, I just wanted to let everyone know how awesome Seven Psychopaths is. In this case I would rather have gotten to see it a second time, since it’s such a weird and brilliant film that I wish I could have some more time to mull it over.
Birdman (which technically carries the subtitle Or: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is devoted to Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) a washed up movie actor who became famous acting as a superhero, the titular Birdman, but grew tired of it as his career waned. He is trying to revive his career via a play he wrote the script for, is directing and is starring in, based on the Raymond Carver story What We Talk About, When We Talk About Love. He is struggling against bad publicity and rapidly depleting finances, and so decides to hire the talented but mercurial actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) to try and salvage the project. Throughout it all he must contend with his bitter assistant/daughter (Emma Stone) dealing with her rehab and requests from his harassed manager (Zach Galifianakis). It’s also worth pointing out that Riggan has the titular Birdman speaking to him when he’s alone, and seems to have superpowers of some kind.
The most important thing to understand about this movie is the look of it. The entire movie, aside from one moment towards the end, is shot to look like one continuous shot. Obviously that’s not actually the case (although it’s a credit to both the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who worked on Gravity and Children of Men, and the editor Douglas Crise who worked on Babel and Spring Breakers) that it looks so seamless. Not only is every scene a single long take, but they have been put together gorgeously, with edit points hidden subtly among natural darkness or held shots.
This has the effect of turning every single scene into a marathon of acting. The actors, in particular Keaton, have to be willing to keep going and going for uninterrupted takes, the editor cannot save them. This is one of those movies where even a single actor not being all the way in could sink the whole production, but they’re all there, at the top of their game, from start to finish. Keaton is as good as he’s ever been as Riggan. I don’t want to spoil anything, but he is so intense and committed to his role that it will be a crime if he’s not nominated for Best Actor at this year’s Oscars.
Also incredible (albeit slightly less surprising) is Edward Norton, as the prima donna actor extraordinaire. He’s called upon to do some pretty weird s**t (again, no spoilers) as he plays an exaggerated parody of himself, and he’s definitely up to very odd challenge. The rest of the cast acquit themselves nicely; Emma Stone is excellent at portraying her bitter, recovering drug addict, with just enough humanity to keep her from being a cliche. Zach Galifianakis steps outside his usual characters with great results. Even tertiary characters like Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough and Lindsay Duncan excel in small roles and shorter scenes.
Of course good acting and great direction are nothing without a good screenplay, and it’s here that Birdman really takes off. Most people have noted that the biography for Riggan could easily apply to Michael Keaton, but it goes beyond just him. Edward Norton, for example, is playing a talented but difficult to work with actor who gradually begins to irritate and alienate the director. Naomi Watts is playing an aspiring actress who, at one point, shows romantic interest towards a dark haired female costar…that’s Mulholland Dr. you philistines. Even the voice of Birdman in Riggan’s head sounds less like Keaton’s whispering Batman and more like a snarling growl. My point, is that the movie is very concerned with metatext and that extends to all the actors.
The other thing Birdman is concerned with is the various conflicts that exist in the artistic world. Conflict between art film and blockbuster, between critic and artist, between theater and film, all these are brought up and discussed, but the movie wisely never seems to take a side. For example, at one point a critic takes Riggan to task for being a Hollywood celebrity who just waltzes into theater, using their fame to muscle their way in without paying their dues, while Riggan responds that all she does is watch and never take any risks. Neither character is right, but neither character is fully wrong and the movie seems to acknowledge that.
The movie even acknowledges both sides of the conflict with its filmmaking. The look of the film, that of one unbroken shot, seems tailor made to give the movie the feeling of a play, but the movie also indulges in some things that a play could never do, when it begins to bring in its special effects (again, don’t want to spoil) and time compression shots. I’m not certain that this movie has a side, other than pointing out the good and negative points on all sides of the arguments.
To say more is to risk spoiling the way the movie goes off the rails come the second and third act. In the end, Birdman is a movie about pretentious people, saying pretentious things, and being pretentious about their chosen fields. However, it is also one of the most fascinating and unique theater going experiences I’ve had thus far this year. I don’t like to predict what I think will be the best movie of the year, because the year isn’t over yet. But, I honestly can’t imagine what movie would beat this one for the top spot, even if I am biased in favor of movies that are a little…meta. Do not miss Birdman.
Elessar is a 24 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he’s pretty sure Riggan’s attorney is named Harvey.
– brilliant direction and camera work, exceptional editing and style
– great acting, career best work from Michael Keaton
– exceptional screenplay, unique story, extremely meta
– story and presentation is a little on the weird side
– ending might be hard to figure out