Riggan Thomas, once known quite well to movie theater goers as an iconic super hero called "The Birdman" had recently turned down a third installment of the franchise. Now washed up, he attempts to reinvent himself as a director by staging a new retelling of a classic Broadway dramatic play called "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love". The events leading up to the Saturday night premiere prove to be one disaster after another as the original lead actor is injured while on set and Riggan scrambles to find a replacement, but the replacement proves to be exactly who he needs - a method actor who takes the job way too seriously. But Riggan has a hard time juggling between the set, his replacement actor, his equally washed up daughter, and a host of other disasters that prevent a proper staging of the play. Meanwhile, a New York Times critic who Riggan has to woo threatens to shut down production of the play before it even starts with a scathing review of the dress rehearsal. Written by halo1k
October 24, 2014
Alejandro González Iñárritu
In Birdman (2014) Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, an actor with a career path not unlike his own. Riggan was once Birdman, a Batman-esq blockbuster comic franchise. Only now Riggan is in the twilight of his career is attempting to make it back to relevance with a Broadway play. One that he funded, directed, adapted and stars in. Riggan’s play cast consists of Mike played by Edward Norton, his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and Leslie (Naomi Watts). Waiting in the wings to help support Riggan in his production are his assistant Jake played by Zach Galifianakis and his fresh from rehab daughter Sam, played By Emma Stone.
We join the cast a few days outside of opening night during preview shows. The play seems doomed to fail from all kinds of casting, financial and critical pitfalls. Although the problems of the production all pale in comparison to its biggest issue, Riggan is a total delusional schizophrenic. All of the delusions play out first hand so we can see his madness in all its explosive glory. Riggan Thompson is a modern day Gloria Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, looking for his grand return to the silver screen and his last big close up.
I must admit I had mixed feeling about director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. I loved his early work in Amores Perros (2000). It was exhaustingly dramatic but the visual style and direction were powerful. Then with 21 Grams (2003), Babel (2006) and Biutiful (2010) I had decided that while a very effective and visually stunning director, his work was all way too dark for me. Maybe the artistic and symbolic message was lost on me. Overall I just couldn’t help but feeling that he was a film canister is half empty type of director. Too dark and tragic to be entertaining, or enjoyable.
Birdman is a wonderful departure from his previous films. Birdman is just as dark, yet there is a small silver lining of bitter sweet dark comedy to make it unforgettable. Alejandro has said in interviews that his films are an extension of himself. I can’t help but wonder if this new found levity to his subjects means he has found happiness. The cinematography and direction in Birdman are unlike anything I have seen. The camera weaves in out and around the theater, with long, mind blowing steady cam shots and seamless time progression shots. The Broadway set is like a more elaborate version of Wes Anderson’s diorama style sets. It is as much as a character in the story as an of the actors.
Michael Keaton delivers an Oscar worthy performance. Playing the tormented actor haunted by the inner voice of his Birdman big screen persona. The voice taking on the Christian Bale style deep voice heavy smoker Batman. There are moments of madness and tenderness in Keaton’s performance that rival any of his other roles. Edward Norton, as if it needs to be said, is phenomenal. Delivering sharp, rapid fire dialogue with laser point accurate timing and precision. Emma Stone as the daughter is a stand out supporting performance. Her role is a dark departure from the wide eyed cutesy teen characters she has played in the past. Zach Galifinakis as Riggan’s assistant is deeper than his usual comic relief role, yet no less funny. The performances have such impact, the dialogue alone could play out amazingly as a radio drama; even without all of the pop and magic of the cinematography.
Birdman’s message is about what being a global celebrity can do to an actor. Specifically what happens to those who have fallen out of the lime light. With critics and social media there is now no end to the level of torture a person struggling for acceptance can be subjected to.
In the dressing room Michael Keaton’s character Riggan has a quote on his mirror “A thing is still a thing, no mater what people say about it”. At the end of this film I couldn’t help but think of the late Robin Williams. A man brilliant in his work, loved by millions and yet tortured by inner demons, that eventually resulted in his demise.
This film is a testament to all of the great talent we have lost one way or another, burned up under the harsh magnifying glass of their own stardom.
Birdman brings a whole new “magic to the movies” that I haven’t felt in a very long time. CGI and other amazing talented movie makers have given us the middle earth (Lord of the Rings) and realistic twin brothers (The Social Network). It’s not a bad thing at all — we are living in such an amazing time for movies and tv shows. That said, rarely do I walk away from a movie completely in awe of how it was made.
Enter Birdman. While there is some CGI to it, it’s the camerawork that is truly outstanding. It’s like watching a play in front of your eyes, the camera never breaks as it walks you though the story. No second shots. No fades to black. It’s as if the actors and crew had a one-day shoot with quick costume changes and breaks between the scenes. Please spend your hard earned money supporting this movie at your local theater — even if it’s just to appreciate and support the talented folks behind the cameras that made this movie.
Now for the folks on screen — amazing. Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts and Ed Norton. I have a personal motto when it comes to movies … “If Ed Norton is in, I’m in”. Of course he wouldn’t let me down. Yet again he comes to the screen with some of the best acting I’ve seen. After watching Naomi Watts play a Russian stripper in St. Vincent, it was awesome to see her in a completely different role a Broadway actress struggling with confidence on and off the stage. Emma Stone was brilliant. Not only would she be a great friend to have … she is proving herself as not just a pretty face but a talented actress who I see getting a golden statue someday.
And Michael Keaton — we’ve missed you. What a wonderful comeback story to bring to us. His real-life comparison playing Batman over 20 years ago made this movie eerily creepy in a touching way. But Keaton was not only great because he once himself a Birdman, he was great because he is a great. A few times I did hear a bit of Beetlejuice in his rants, which brought back more fond Keaton-memories.
I felt a lot of vulnerability from Keaton. It seemed personal. And there is nothing better than genuineness on and off screen. Keaton, Stone, Norton – they gave it their all.
You may love this movie, you may not. It is a true independent film — if you’re favorite movies are Hollywood blockbusters this is not going to be on top of the list. However I still encourage you to see this movie. It’s an interesting story about life after big Hollywood (think modern-day Sunset Blvd.). What does a former James Bond, Bruce Wayne or Peter Parker do when a younger, stronger actor takes his place on the screen? After watching Birdman, you may even have a bit more respect for our childhood superheroes and their courage after the sets are closed.