There has been an extraordinary amount of hyperbole surround this film, in my humble opinion, but I certainly believe that this is a film that will affect everyone a little bit differently. It’s an accumulation of many aspects of film, theatre, performance, writing, direction, and social commentary, which all blend surprisingly well. More than anything, this is the type of film that leaves you thinking well after you get home and it’s one that may even demand repeat viewings. That’s the mark of a great film and in this case, it’s also a mark of something unique that we really haven’t seen before.
Decades after playing a superhero known as “Birdman” in a trilogy of films, Riggan (Micael Keaton) has decided that he wants to prove himself as a worthwhile actor and decides to write, direct, and star in an broadway play. He still hears the voice of Birdman in his head, telling him to sellout and get back into the superhero business, but Riggan wants to do real work and has to balance a rocky family life. He’s dating his co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough), is helping mentor Lesley (Naomi Watts) for her first time on Broadway, and is trying to repair his relationship with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone).
When Mike (Edward Norton) joins the cast to help “save” the show, things go slightly awry and we get a very vivid portrait of an artist’s life in every imaginable and unimaginable way. Riggan is confident in his writing, directing, and acting, but it seems like everyone else sees him as a fluke that’s just trying to remain relevant. Critics are already harassing him, citizens wish to see him return to his Birdman glory, and his family just wants him to focus on them. Riggan sees the world through a very specific lens and his interpretation of everything causes everyone to question his sanity. Everything is riding on this show going successfully and he’s just hoping that he can get things in order before it’s too late.
Birdman is a celebration of theatre, film, and performance in every sense of those words, and is easily this year’s greatest technical display in every single way. There’s been an ungodly amount of hype surrounding this film and it’s clear to see why. The film is a compilation of numerous awards-worthy performances, a fresh story with strong writing, master-class direction, and a great message about the world of performing and the inner-monologues of those attempting to create some form of art. I may not be as head-over-heels for Birdman as many of my colleagues are, but I can’t deny that this film is a masterpiece on many different levels.
Michael Keaton is the centerpiece of this film, in what’s sure to go down in history as his strongest and most vibrant performance to date. His washed up, befuddled mega-star is full of regret and ambition that adds many different layers to his already complex character. Keaton plays the part with determination and vulnerability, while also incorporating a fantastical element in the film’s more fantastical scenes. Personally, I admired Edward Norton’s performance moreso, as I believe Norton found a character that he could really have some fun with. Norton is particularly smarmy in this film, but I did love how he presented his character and didn’t take crap for anyone. He brings a certain energy to the film that just makes everything so much more fun and I loved his approach to a character that only feels real while he’s pretending on-stage.
Emma Stone has yet to be bad and she continues her streak of strong roles here, as she gives one of her better performances to date. She has a bite to her rehabilitated daughter of a star and to watch her pour her emotions into every scene is wonderful. She keeps a slick sense of humor that she does so well, but she also feels more real in this film because her character is somewhat of a relatable one. She brings honesty and reality to this fictitious film and is the one that keeps things grounded when they need to be. Naomi Watts doesn’t steal the female spotlight, but she does turn in a strong performance that won’t go unnoticed this year. Her “first time on broadway” attitude is charming and spot-on for anyone who’s ever performed before and the care that she puts into handling her emotions and scenes is extremely admirable.
Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu turned heads with his impressive films Babel and 21 Grams and it was evident then that this man has a truly unique take on storytelling. Birdman is no exception, as Inarritu meticulously crafted a film that flows as if it was one continuous shot and every beat of the jazzy soundtrack fits in with something on-screen. The story he’s chosen to tell deals heavily with the human experience of wanting to feel like we belong and have something to offer the world. The world of film and theatre is a wonderful thing to explore, as we’ve seen many great stars rise as quickly as they fall and it’s easy for them to sellout in the name of money. The need to feel relevant, as well as to feel accomplished is a common feeling and Inarritu’s use of pop-culture and how it’s affected film and stage performances especially emphasizes how some of these performers feel. Birdman is as much a celebration of performance, as it is an exploration of the human mind and how we interpret our lives.
More than anything, the technical aspects of this film are astounding. The steady camera work and long, tracking shots are absolutely gorgeous and the sign of a true filmmaker. Inarritu provides many closeups to give us a better understanding of his characters, but we also get a view of them from afar and understand how they present themselves on the surface, much like how an audience member would see them in the theatre. Superhero’s are the new moneymaker in Hollywood and the concept of this three-time hero is nothing that we haven’t seen before. The wanting for audiences to view the more serious, dramatic, and passionate work is all too real, but it’s incredibly hard to escape the fact that everyone will remember you for something that was made to be a cash-cow. Every detail of this film is touched upon and there is an extraordinary amount of care that goes in to telling this story as a whole, rather than in different segments.
Birdman is a masterpiece of a film on almost every level and it’s certainly a standout this year, as it’s just so different from everything else you’ll see. It certainly has one of the best ensembles of the year, including some career-best work for Keaton, and it tells one of the greatest stories. It’s impossible to be bored while watching Birdman, but feeling disconnected in some instances isn’t abnormal. The film doesn’t feel too long, but it certainly drags in a few places and doesn’t always make sense. Distinguishing between reality and a fantasy isn’t all that hard in the film, but the two both have their pros and cons. This is certainly a film that deserves repeat viewings to fully appreciate, but it does leave a great enough first impression to recommend it to any fan of film and theatre.