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Review: Birdman

October 27, 2014

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Birdman Poster

The experience of seeing Birdman is often like witnessing a sustained magic trick.  We watch the movie in awe of how director Alejandro G. Innaritu is pulling everything together, and are left wanting to see it again just to get a closer look at how perfectly all the pieces fall into place.

With much of the running time seamlessly edited to look like a single take, this is a thrilling and ultimately brilliant cinematic magic trick that is wildly entertaining to watch unfold, carried by an outstanding comeback performance from Michael Keaton.

Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is a washed up actor famous for playing the superhero Birdman, struggling to be taken seriously as he prepares for his stage debut in an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

But with the voice of Birdman ringing through his head, causing him to become increasingly delusional of his powers, the play is paradoxically both a last ditch effort for Riggan to regain his grasp on reality, as well as proof that he is slipping further into insanity.

Mounting the production is a big job for all involved.  His daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is out of rehab and working as his assistant, and his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) is also around backstage.  Actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) is having her own issues, heightened by her husband Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) being hired as a last minute replacement, a professional actor who brings along his own inflated ego.  Manager Jake (Zach Galifianakis) is working tirelessly to keep everyone on track, just trying to make it through opening night without a glitch, and hopefully get some good publicity in the process.

The brilliantly written screenplay offers numerous quotes and verbal exchanges that are the stuff actors dream of, and this is a film with a big cast where everyone has a chance to shine, turning in some of their best work.  Michael Keaton is mesmerizing throughout every scene of Birdman, and he seems utterly rejuvenated with the material.  After starring in Batman and Batman Returns over two decades ago, before turning down the sequels to focus on other work, his intensely dedicated performance here could be seen as art imitating life, and it’s an unforgettable comeback for the actor.

The same could be said of Edward Norton, who also delivers one of his best performances.  From the moment his character arrives on stage for rehearsals, having already memorized the script, the actor delivers compelling supporting work that perfectly compliments Michael Keaton’s star turn.  Emma Stone reaches new heights with her standout performance, a live wire who isn’t afraid of telling the truth in a world where egos are stroked above all else, and she has some magnetic scenes with both Michael Keaton and Edward Norton.  Zach Galifianakis and Naomi Watts are also excellent.

The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, who achieved similar magic with last year’s Gravity, is another integral part of the experience.  We are taken through the halls and between dressing rooms, the camera effortlessly utilizing the almost claustrophobic backstage confines of the theatre to follow the actors without ever missing a beat.  It’s a mesmerizing technique that works as far more than just a gimmick, injecting a sense of almost feverish energy and intensity to the film that never wavers over the two hour running time.

Because of this, the film also features some impressive scene changes, like a memorable moment when the video playing on an iPhone screen becomes the image on a television, before the camera pulls back to reveal that we are in a different location.  Keeping up the illusion of this all being a single take, these ingenious little touches are the reasons why Birdman is so exciting to watch.  Constantly finding ways to surprise us, this is a movie that captures the exhilaration of live theatre, where anything can happen.

But along with offering a pitch black comedy of errors, that is alive with the pulsating energy of staging a performance, Birdman also gives us a lot to think about.  The film is filled with sharp commentary on the nature of acting and what passes for art in the modern age, which is especially relevant right now, with some of our best actors currently tied up in franchises.  It’s about the struggle for relevance at a time when it doesn’t take much to go viral, and artistic integrity versus the much more popular notion of celebrity.

It’s also an allegory of how an actor can never really escape from the roles that defined them and first put their names on marquees.  The fantastical touches that Birdman offers can be taken at face value, or seen as metaphors of both method acting and the toll that performing can have on mental health.  Are we supposed to believe that Riggan is literally becoming his character?  I don’t know, but we believe his delusions within the context of the film, because he is a man completely trapped within his own mind.

Through a subplot with Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), a theatre critic for the New York Times who relishes the power her words have to either make or break a fledgling production, Birdman also brilliantly touches on the role that reviewers play in the artistic process.  She makes no secret of her disrespect for whatever Riggan Thompson does, having written him off years ago as just another franchise star, threatening his show with a bad review before having even seen the previews.

A scene where he confronts her continues to linger in my mind.  She’s depicted as a critic concerned more with “labels” than actually getting into why something does or doesn’t work, and I imagine certain people will take issue with that.  But I think there is painful truth to the fact that some critics can become jaded, refusing to judge a work on its own merits, and instead criticizing mistakes the performers have made in the past.  This goes the other way too, with Mike Shiner getting praised just for showing up.

This is an exciting and brazenly original film that offers a high minded critique of the cinematic pulp that often rules the multiplexes.  From the outstanding performances, to the excellent jazz music by Antonio Sanchez that uses drums to elevate the constant sense of rhythm, Birdman is a transfixing cinematic experience, with an energy that gets going and never stops.

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