(2014) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan, Jeremy Shamos, Damian Young, Keenan Shimizu, Merritt Weaver, Natalie Gold, Clark Middleton, Jimmy Marsh Garland, Akira Ito, Michael Siberry, Katherine O’Sullivan. Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inirritu
Our identity is sometimes self-affixed. Other times it is forced upon us by circumstances, or by others. When you are a celebrity, you are often trapped within the latter situation. A memorable role or performance can change people’s perception of you until you realize that you aren’t seen as anything separate from that performance or role. You become trapped in that role forever.
Riggan Thomson (Keaton) has had such a role. The superhero Birdman made his career through three hugely successful movies but after three of them he decided to turn his back on the part which by then was far too late. By the time he’d turned down Birdman 4 he was already yesterday’s news, a has-been.
Itching to make a comeback, he’s putting on a Broadway production that he has written, directed and is starring in. adapted from the Raymond Carver short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. With his closest friend and lawyer Jake (Galifianakis) helping him with the business end, he has cast his girlfriend Laura (Riseborough), first time Broadway actress Lesley (Watts) and Ralph (Shamos), possibly the worst actor ever. When a fluke accident knocks Ralph out before the first preview performance and Jake frantic to find a replacement, Lesley offers to call Mike (Norton), with whom she once had a relationship. Mike, being a big star who could certainly draw larger audiences, is immediately brought in even though some have misgivings about Mike’s general attitude and backstabbing tendencies.
Riggan and Jake have sunk everything into this venture and know that if it fails, Riggan’s career is done. With Riggan’s adult daughter Sam (Stone) acting as his personal assistant to offer support – okay, to rip her father a new one at every opportunity, a vicious New York Times theater critic (Duncan) waiting in the wings to savage the play because she hates Hollywood stars with a passion, it is no wonder Riggan is beginning to have delusions of telekinetic superpowers, of hearing the voice of his cinematic alter-ego in his head with whom he has long conversations. Can Riggan pull this off and save his career?
Inirritu has tended to do dramas with a kind of heavy hand in the past with movies like Babel and Biutiful to his credit. This is more of a heavy handed comedy in many ways although at the end of the day I think it is more accurately classified a drama with fantasy and comedic overtones.
Keaton, who once played Batman in two Tim Burton movies back in the day, is inspired casting. In return he delivers his greatest performance to date. Riggan is a tortured soul of missed opportunities, bad turns and ill-advised choices. Those are the kinds of things that keep a person up all night and Riggan clearly isn’t getting much sleep. His chance at redemption is a long-shot at best and Riggan knows it. Years wasted away from his family that ended his marriage to a faithful wife (Ryan) and created a rift between Riggan and Sam. On top of that, he’s having delusions, hallucinations – call them what you will – which make more sense to him than the sensory input from the reality around him.
Give him a good supporting cast and a terrific script and you have a winner without fail. One of the things I like about Birdman besides Keaton is the ambiguity within the script. In many ways, you are given “just the facts” without any editorializing. You are left to make your own opinions with the information you’re given. If you need an example ask yourself this when you leave the theater: What did Sam see at the window? Those who have seen the movie will get the reference. My friends and I debated that very question after the movie was over and I don’t think any two of us had exactly the same answer.
Inarritu chose to shoot the film to resemble one long continuous shot a la Rope by Alfred Hitchcock. A lot of critics have praised this technique but I thought it got a little gimmicky, particularly near the end of the movie when they were running out of ways of transitioning from one point of view to the next.
This isn’t a mainstream movie although it isn’t so far out that mainstream audiences can’t enjoy it. This isn’t a typical indie movie either although it isn’t so Hollywood that indie audiences won’t embrace it. Not everyone is going to like it although critics have thus far enthusiastically recommended the movie but while most of the people who saw it with me admitted that they liked it, there were some who were ambivalent about it. I won’t say it’s a transformative movie experience although I will say it’s insightful – and allows you to reach those insights honestly. It is likely to be an Oscar contender although I suspect that there are other movies that are more likely to win the gold statue come February. However, I think a lot of people are going to see this as one of the year’s best movies and I really can’t fault them for that.
REASONS TO GO: May be Keaton’s best performance ever. Line between fantasy and reality is thin. Ambiguous where it needs to be. Terrific supporting cast.
REASONS TO STAY: A little gimmicky in places.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of swearing, some brief violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the movie was shot at the St. James theater on Broadway, one of the most prestigious theaters on the Great White Way where such plays as Oklahoma, The King and I, Becket and Hello, Dolly all made their Broadway debuts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Fish
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: St. Vincent