Director: Alejandro G. Inarritu
Cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan
Plot: A washed-up actor, Riggan Thomson (Keaton) puts together a Broadway play, wrestling with his own ego. Or should I say, alter-ego?
Birdman is a film that deserves to be watched more than once. Not everything is going to sink in on that first watch. Read any review and their reading of what Birdman is actually about varies. Some say that it is a satire of Hollywood, bringing up the intensity of self-absorbed actors, mocking the value film-makers put into trending topics on Twitter, critics and bloggers (you are nothing until the IPC has given you that fourth top hat!), and allowing the audience to laugh along as the connections between Birdman and other superhero franchises are referenced (the key one is Batman, seeing as Keaton is cast as the lead, but Robert Downey Jr and Jeremy Renner are brought up too). At the same time, it is more than simple satire. It is a dissection on what drives a director. If nothing else, Birdman is a terrific character piece of a man who has lost sight if he is in the movie-making and theatre business for the art, the money or to salvage his own personal worth? Some people question whether any of this is real, or if this is all in the Riggan’s head, perhaps as he is sitting on the set of a fourth Birdman movie and wondering if his life means anything? Maybe, if the whole thing isn’t an extended dream sequence, certain parts of it are. Is Riggan imagining his co-star’s love tryst with his daughter in the rafters above the theatre, or is that an over-active imagination fuelling his hatred and dwindling his sanity. The truth is Birdman is potentially all of these things and just when you think you have found the true meaning of the movie, a phrase crops up that throws several more discussions into the pot. A religious preacher asks advice on his ‘performance’. Riggan is shown a viral video of him running around New York in his underwear and told that this is ‘real power’. There is too much to take in on one viewing and trying to sit down with friends and discuss the essence of the movie just brings up even more potential roads of analysis. While it is too early to suggest whether Birdman is about to rival Kubrick’s filmography for a lasting impression, it is looking like a safer bet with every passing review.
Maybe this is why it took me so long to sit down and watch the thing. Kubrick’s work is very heavy-handed and is intimidating when you sit down to dissect it. Birdman, on the other hand, doesn’t forget to have fun. Like any good magician, and Inarritu is a great example of how directors are magicians in their own right, the fun isn’t just in figuring out how and why this movie is here, but in just sitting back and watching. Don’t fancy being dragged into the whole ‘what is a performance?’ debate? Fine, just sit back and watch a truly great director at his best. Birdman comes across as one long, tracking shot, weaving through night and day, preview night to preview night, as if these scenes are one, long continual event. There is no cutting away from the story. When Riggan leaves the shot, the camera lingers and we end up being launched into a sub-plot about Naomi Watts’ actress looking for praise and relevance in the madness of the moments. Yes, Birdman is a two hour long movie, but you wouldn’t know it, almost as if we are being treated to our own fast-forwarded montage of events. It is even more impressive, when you consider how subtle Inarritu is with his choice of making a one-shot movie. If this were a Danny Boyle flick, he would be showing off his prowess with zooms and camera trickery. By halfway through this movie, we have kind of forgotten that there are no cuts, the camerawork so smooth and precise. This is not the work of a director who simply made this movie to show off (even if the discussions above might lead us to comparing Keaton’s self-serving director to the film’s actual director). There are moments when he lets rip and amazes us, especially the scene where we finally see the ‘Birdman’ in the flesh, that voice whispering in Riggan’s ear materialising in a gloriously over-the-top sequence that neatly parodies the blockbusters of today.
The actors are just as mesmerising, doing well to keep up with Inarritu’s mad-cap direction. You might struggle to condense describing Birdman with one word, but if I was to try my luck, I would choose the word ‘energy’. The reason it did so well at the awards ceremonies wasn’t just because of the post-modernism, the originality or the spectacle – it was because this was a chance to see both the director and the actors tear into a project with passion. Every actor here works their socks off, both natural and hyper-real at the same time. Naomi Watts is at her very best, but makes it look like the easiest thing in the world. Emma Stone, proving she can do no wrong, knocks the ball out of the park again, especially with a monologue as she rips into her father with vicious anger. Zach Galifianakis is the one casting choice that may raise an eyebrow, but it is a clever move, the actor using his natural comedic talents, but dialling it down a notch to suit Inarritu’s style. His easy-going charisma is easy to get on board with and every one of his jokes work wonders. Most of these actors do very well, especially when they are competing with Edward Norton, who is incredible as the arrogant theatre actor, who swans through the movie with endless amounts of ego, over-compensating for his problems in the bedroom. Every moment he is on-screen is glorious, as he parodies to the over-achieving performer, searching for that realism that conveniently means he gets to drink gin through the rehearsals. He defines that very word ‘energy’ I used to describe the entire cast. He is a joy to watch. Then there is Michael Keaton. The actor has always been glorious, but finally he is given a script that allows him to flex every acting capability he has. Whether he is on his own, reflecting on his sorry life with a sudden bout of telekinesis (yeah, it’s that kind of film), or bouncing off another actor, he is terrific. Beyond terrific: excellent, captivating, phenomenal. He is the centre of this crazy world and he does well to keep a story, that threatens to be impossible to ground, grounded. If this movie’s crazy direction or deep discussions scare you away from trying this movie, at least check out Michael Keaton’s performance. If Inarritu’s point of art being destructive and wasted on self-absorbed wrecks like Riggan is true, then if we get more performances like Keaton’s, at least it would all be worth it!
Final Verdict: Film of 2014? Perhaps my love of Babadook is a little too strong to break just yet, but is it worth the OSCARs? A resounding and definite yes.