Birdman is the kid who shows up to the party uninvited, walks up to the host and punches him in the face, then leaves with his girlfriend. It’s a movie that seemingly hates Hollywood, and it also might be the best movie I’ve seen this year. Confused? Me too. Tackling themes of hedonism, narcissism, and enduring legacies, there should be something here for most viewers to latch on to even if you aren’t amused by the meta commentary about the movie industry. Birdman features some of the most unique writing, directing, and acting of any movie you’ve probably seen recently, and I expect we’ll all be hearing a lot more about it this awards season.
The story of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is centered around Riggan Thomson ,played by Michael Keaton, who starred in three Birdman comic book movies. Riggan was an A-list Hollywood star years ago, but now, aged and washed up, he is trying to reassert his relevance by writing, directing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. We follow Riggan as he tries to keep his cast and himself from imploding as they ramp up production on the play leading into their opening night on Broadway.
While the main plot is fairly straightforward the tension is always palpable. Riggan has enough difficulty keeping his own delusions of grandeur contained, but there’s a multitude of other egos that he also has to contend with. His lead actress, Lesley, played by Naomi Watts, is anxious about making her Broadway debut. Lesley’s boyfriend, Mike, played by Edward Norton, is a method actor who stops at nothing to capture a raw performance. Lastly, Riggan’s daughter, Sam, played by Emma Stone, is a recovering addict often wallowing in her own self-pity. Each character feels like they’re always on the brink of jumping off of a building or pointing a loaded gun at one another, and this sense of dread looms over the entire movie like one big car crash in slow motion.
Each actor in Birdman puts on a superb performance. Keaton is perfect for the part of Riggan, as he too still garners most of his notoriety from playing a superhero. There isn’t a more meta choice for this roll that I can imagine. Riggan is constantly on the verge of a meltdown, being pushed to the edge on multiple occasions. What makes Keaton’s portrayal so memorable is his physicality. Riggan often looks uncomfortable in his own skin. The insurmountable pressure that Riggan has burdened himself with has caused him to fall into a manic state. He’s always darting his eyes around a room rapidly or fidgeting incessantly. The inner voice of Birdman further emphasizes Riggan’s mental breakdown, but even without this touch Riggan’s instability would be conveyed well enough by Keaton’s mannerisms.
Meanwhile, the supporting cast is equally stellar. Edward Norton, as Mike, is who everyone will probably be talking about most leaving the theater. Mike serves as the catalyst for much of Riggan’s madness during the play’s production. He’s a narcissistic instigator that’s as infuriating as he is amusing. I’d suspect Norton will be a front runner for the supporting actor category. Perhaps as equally entertaining and noteworthy is Emma Stone playing Riggan’s daughter, Sam. She simultaneously epitomized what was wrong with much of our ADD YouTube and Twitter based culture while still managing to show concern for her father’s well being. While she struggles to not always feel sorry for herself, she’s also trying to get her father to adapt to the times, which I found endearing.
Writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu is masterful constructing layers and layers of commentary in Birdman. The movie is a play, within a play, within a play (queue Inception music). There is a ton of inside baseball here about the current state of the movie industry and its overindulgence in blockbuster entertainment at the expense of artistic integrity. That’s not to say Iñárritu doesn’t target other groups, he is an equal opportunity offender. I found the insights into critics and Broadway just as foreboding, so much so that reviewing Birdman makes me a little sad inside. This is a multidimensional film with a lot to say about our egomania and lack of craftsmanship when it comes to the arts. And speaking of craft, Birdman is shot unlike anything else you’ll see this year. From beginning to end, the movie is presented as one long take. You’re often close up on characters in narrow hallways, or right next to them as they perform live on stage. I believe that this technique was responsible for much of the omnipresent anxiety I felt throughout the film’s duration.
If you find any fault with Birdman it might be in the last ten or fifteen minutes of the film. While I personally enjoyed it, I did notice that the commentary, specifically made by Riggan’s inner voice of Birdman, was a little on the nose. Also, there are elements of the story that are purposefully ambiguous. I’m not entirely sure that these final moments fit the vibe of the rest of film, but I tend to fall on the side of liking the end more than disliking it. Regardless of how you feel about Birdman’s final moments, it shouldn’t ruin your enjoyment of the rest of the movie.
I’d find it hard to believe that anyone who enjoys unique, bold movie experiences would not like the story of Birdman. Hilarious, satirical, and meta you’ll be hard pressed to find a more well rounded movie to see in theaters right now. It’s on the short list of my favorite movies of 2014, and it actually might be my current number one. See it, now!