Birdman isn’t a movie you should talk about as soon as you finish watching it. There so many different things that can be said or discussed for the film and watching it once doesn’t give it justice. Having taken a while to think the film over, I can confidently say I think it’s one of the best movies of the year despite some heavy problems I admittedly had with the screenplay.
Birdman presents the life of actor Riggin Thompson (Michael Keaton), a washed up, has been most notable for playing the superhero Birdman in the late 80’s, early 90’s. Some decades later, Riggin tries to revitalize his career by doing a stage production of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. In making the play, he sacrifices his family, friends & sanity in an attempt to regain any small glimpse of what his fame used to be.
Director and writer Alejandro González Iñárritu tries to take us into the soul of a dying man with the character of Thompson. Riggin used to be one of the biggest names in Hollywood, everybody loved him and he received lots of money. Twenty years later, he is running out of time. Everybody mocks him, hates him or has forgotten about him. He has become detached from his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) and his daughter Sam (Emma Stone). What he is doing with this play is his attempt to obtain not just stardom but peace with himself. This is about the rebirth of a man, now understanding the sheer darkness and chaos of the universe. Everyone will eventually be forgotten and the memory of Riggin will be as dead as the man himself, there will be no way he can ever be forever remembered. Almost all of the characters in the movie are self-obsessed and lonely and they all seem to be living in their own little world. Every day, Riggin is surrounded by these people who attack him and lie to him. But the movie isn’t focusing on the despair and grimness of our situation; it is talking on a man’s attempt to escape from it. He wants to fly away from his ego and illusions of grandeur and break into something much more natural and eternal. He finds peace with the conversations he has with his family but in the end he has to do the thing that will ultimately strip him of the thing that has haunted him his entire life. If he comes out the other side, he will transform into something far more loving and giving. Birdman comes down to being a man’s last chance to escape into a better life than the one he has been chasing for many years.
González’s direction is grade A for a lot of reasons. The movie takes on the hard task of trying to make it look like it was done in one shot. And while I assume they cut every once in a while, you leave with a massive appreciation for all the work it took in editing and shooting it to look that way. Having the movie filmed like this gives the setting of Riggin’s mental breakdown a sort of dreamlike, fantastical quality that almost makes New York City look like other worldly. There is a great injustice if this movie doesn’t at least get a nomination for the editing. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki follows up his Oscar winning work in Gravity with a work that is very visually beautiful. There are plenty of scenes here where he gets to show off his talent for taking normal things and showing them in a way you’ve never seen them shown before. My two personal favorite shots in the movie are when Riggin goes into a brightly colored alcohol store and when we get a shot of a beach with dead jellyfish lying around. It would be remiss not to mention the music. The actual soundtrack made for the film by Antonio Sánchez is great. Mostly consisting of drumming, it helps add intensity and a sort of distinct sound which you don’t get to hear in most movie soundtracks. My favorite musical moments are those are when the movie decides to use classical music. It has a very rich sounds that adds a tragic layer to Thompson that makes it additionally passionate and moving. The movie is pretty close to technically flawless when you look at it from that standpoint, the way González observes his characters; themes and landscapes are truly unique here.
This is probably one of the most talented casts I’ve seen this year. Michael Keaton is killing it in a role he was born to play. Whenever he’s on screen, you get this feeling that he putting more passion and more heart into it than any other role he’s ever had to play. Keaton knew that this was the kind of role that only comes once to an actor and he goes with it. He seems genuinely broken by the end and I think Keaton took a lot of things from his own life and channeled into his own interpretation of Riggin. It’s always great to see this kind of very personal performance.
Emma Stone isn’t in the film as much as you would think, but in one powerful scene between her and Keaton, she manages to steal the show and lock in a nomination at plenty of awards this year. The anger and emotion but ultimate love she has for her father manages to shine through immensely over the course of her scenes. This is the first great performance I’ve seen from her and I hope we get plenty more in what should be an illustrious career. While I wasn’t as over the moon as others were for his performance, Edward Norton is definitely very good as Mike, an egotistical yet talented actor causing havoc on Riggin’s set. Him and Keaton have some great chemistry whenever they’re battling each other on some topics. The real, great supporting actor performance comes from Zach Galifianakis as Riggin’s assistant Jake. Finding himself at the end of his rope, Jake battles to no use to keep Thompson from going over the edge. Like Stone, he has one huge scene that will leave a large impression on you afterwards. For a lot of years I’ve been really impressed with his stand up and I’m glad he got a chance to show his true acting chops. Finally, Amy Ryan is excellent as Thompson’s sort of voice of reason and in a movie full of loud, damaged people, she has to play the most grounded and stable person. The movie is certainly quite strange but she adds the needed quiet and gentleness to Riggin’s character arc.
If not for the screenplay, this would definitely be one of my top five favorite movies of the year. Unfortunately, there are some major problems I had with what was previously mentioned that kept from falling head over heels for this movie. For example, Riggin’s girlfriend Laura was distractingly poorly written. She didn’t add anything to the grand scheme of things and all of her scenes made her seem very stereotypically kooky without adding any personality. It isn’t helped that actress Andrea Riseborough overacted throughout a lot of the scenes. I just don’t get why that character needed to be there in comparison to everything else.
I think my biggest problem with the movie is how some of the dialogue is written. True, there are plenty of great scenes with conversations between characters but some of the lines felt very forced and pretentious. When doing a movie like this, you walk a fine line between bits of dialogue that are poetic and bits of dialogue that are self-indulgent. A couple of times people would say things that no one would ever say in real life and it seemed like Iñárritu was trying to show how cool and different he was rather than actually benefit the personality of the characters. It’s distracting and off-putting and it keeps you from getting more invested in the characters than you wish you were. There is one line on a rooftop between Mike and Sam about Mike wanting to see the world young again that feels so artsy and heavy handed that it could’ve been written by a random, hipster at Starbuck’s. The themes and characters end up shining through but in the hands of a lesser cast and director, this could’ve become extremely obnoxious and tedious fast. It ends up making what could’ve been a perfect movie, a film that is still great but occasionally puts sounding cool over some more needed depth.
Alejandro González Iñárritu may not be a perfect writer, but he more than proves himself as an outstanding director. Birdman often threatens to become something too distractingly gimmicky but the true scope manages to make you overlook its big problems and see something that is oftentimes exciting and breathe taking. The movie makes good use of its awesome cast and Zach Galifinakis and Emma Stone get to prove there large talent. Head out to the theaters to see this absorbing, strange ride if you haven’t already watched it.
Release Date: 4/4/2014
Cast: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts and Amy Ryan
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Screenplay by: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo