Birdman is a tremendous film. There’s no other way to put it. It’s an ASTOUNDING technical accomplishment and a genuinely affecting film that is funny, absurd, moving, and sad. The performances are fantastic, the score is terrific, and where Clouds of Sils Maria gets bogged down in the pedantics of actors talking about acting (click here for my review), Birdman uses actors and performance to show us a man unravelling because of his ego and perceived failures. The difference between the two movies boils down to a moment in which one actor wants to deconstruct a scene and talk technique and another actor says, “Forget about that, let’s go for it.” Birdman, in all ways, just goes for it.
Twenty-plus years ago Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) played an enormously popular superhero character, Birdman (obvious echoes of Keaton’s actual career), but now he’s trying to prove his artistic mettle by mounting a play on Broadway, one he wrote, directed, and stars in himself. He is rife with personal problems—he’s broke, his daughter is just out of rehab, his girlfriend might be pregnant—and to top it all off, a freak accident means he has to recast a key role in his play at the eleventh hour. Keaton and Zach Galifianakis, as his friend and producer, have a very funny exchange lamenting the sheer number of talented actors tied up in superhero movies. Sample dialogue:
Riggan: Get me Jeremy Renner.
Riggan: The Hurt Locker guy.
Jake: He’s an Avenger.
Riggan: F*ck, they put that guy in a cape?!
Birdman is scathing toward Hollywood, particularly superhero movies, which it’s true, they do eat up a lot of top-tier talent, both in front of and behind the camera, for what many see as a fancy distraction at best. But director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is equally harsh on the Method-obsessed Broadway actor, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). Shiner is a buffoon, going to ridiculous lengths to be “true”, and even Shiner knows he’s an emotional vampire, only capable of experiencing honest emotion on stage. I’d be curious to know what Inarritu considers to be the happy medium between those two poles.
A lot of great humor is mined from “actors being actors”, such as a scene in which Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts comfort each other and acknowledge how “sad” they are for needing praise, but the meat of Birdman is in Riggan’s manic determination to see his play succeed. He’s not well—he’s hearing voices and hallucinates—but he’s keeping it together to get his play ready. It’s clear, though, that it’s all about his ego. He has a daughter who needs him but she’s working as his assistant, which says everything about his priorities.
Then there’s the technical side of Birdman. The film is a series of long takes, cut together so seamlessly the movie appears to be one long shot. The effect is beautiful and direct. The viewer is thrust into the action and since the immediacy of the long take is unrelenting, we remain a constant part of the narrative. As a result Birdman feels especially voyeuristic. Mega props to editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione for their incredible work stitching this movie together, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and his camera team for executing it so flawlessly.
It’s not just the long takes, though. Antonio Sanchez’s score is mostly jazzy drums and Inarritu finds interesting ways to integrate it into the film, acknowledging the score—one of the most heard-but-unrecognized aspects of a movie—in a tangible way. And the jazz element really works with Inarritu’s offbeat style; Birdman is cinematic jazz. Also, pay attention to when and where Riggan hears the voice in his head, and what item from his dressing room always manages to find its way into frame when he does. It’s a clever bit of staging that pays off if you notice it.
If you only watch one movie in the theater for the rest of the year, please make it Birdman. Go for the outstanding performances and Michael Keaton’s comeback, stay for one of the best-constructed and executed films you’ll ever see.