I’ve been a fan of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s work ever since I watched Amores Perros on DVD sometime at the beginning of this century. Biutiful was the first movie by him that I have not watched in its entirety. For no reason other than that it felt too bleak for me to handle that day. So I was surprised to learn that he was directing a comedy next.
I prefer to keep my expectations low before a movie begins but that was impossible as soon as I’d laid eyes on the teaser trailer for Birdman. I was hooked, and my expectations shot way past the reasonable amount for a movie, any movie.
So I settled in to watched Birdman having read way too much praise for it. And then the movie began.
On a man sitting cross-legged in his underwear, floating above the ground. And a deep, otherworldly voice asking the question: “How did we end up here…?”
The man in the underwear is Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), an over-the-hill actor who used to be famous for playing a superhero called Birdman. I didn’t know that Michael Keaton’s career was in the dumps after he quit playing Batman so I’m not sure the meta comparison to the character’s reality holds true; but it is still an interesting bit of casting. The movie is about Riggan putting everything he owns into a play he is directing as his big ‘comeback’. He has adapted, is starring in, and directing a Raymond Carver text.
As we follow the action in and around the theatre where the play is being staged we are introduced to characters like Sam (Emma Stone) his troubled daughter; Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), an actor who takes the idea of ‘method’ to ridiculous extremes (and is not above goading Riggan into punching above his weight); Jake (Zach Galifianakis), Riggan’s long-suffering (or so it seems) attorney; Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Laura (Andrea Riseborough), the two actresses in Riggan’s play; and assorted other players who aid or impede the play’s journey to opening night.
As one might imagine there is a lot of infighting, name calling, backbiting, and some blows are even exchanged. And through it all, Riggan Thomson is struggling to maintain his sanity, which becomes increasingly difficult because Birdman is not willing to go quietly into the good night of Riggan’s past.
Birdman feels like a movie that should have been made available on the Oculus Rift. One cannot emphasize enough the masterful camerawork by Director of Photography Emanuel Lubezki and Steadicam operator Chris Harhoff. They provide the almost perpetually in motion camera work that was then stitched together by the editing department with invisible cuts and special effects sorcery to give the illusion of this film having played as (almost) one long shot. There is that one brief moment in in the narrative when the cuts show themselves as cuts and they serve an important story point but the feeling of just weaving in and out of a section of New York’s theatre district as well as the innards of the theatre where Thomas’s big career gamble is going to be staged can be best likened to a lucid dream.
Final Analysis: It would be a genuine pity if Mr. Keaton’s nuanced portrayal of a desperate man risking all is not honoured at the Oscar awards. Mr. Iñárritu’s work needs to be acknowledged as well as the shepherd of this project that seems just as unlikely a positive result–after we’ve seen it–as it must have done when it was merely words on a page.
My Advice: If you are in the mood for an energetic peek into the machinations of a small group of neurotic people playing mind games with each other while guarding their own turfs, you should check this out on the biggest screen it is playing on. It is a visual treat.