Everything about Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is right on point. The acting, directing, the drum beat score, the editing, and the cinematography with the continually roving camerawork all work to bring you right into the world of theatre, captivating the audience in this darkly humorous satire about showbiz and those lucky, or rather, unlucky enough to be a part of it.
Riggan (Michael Keaton) is a washed up actor who was once well known for playing a famous superhero named Birdman. He tries to revive his career by directing and acting in a Broadway play. His ego gets the better of him as he alienates his troubled daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), and struggles to work with the few actors in his play, especially Mike (Edward Norton). Meanwhile, he wrestles with his inner demons who have appropriately taken the form as Birdman, his former claim-to-fame character, acting as a kind of alter ego who discourages him on a regular basis.
One of the things about this movie that impressed me within the first ten minutes is the way the cinematography is handled. I have nothing but admiration for Emmanuel Lubezki after seeing this movie. No doubt using some inspiration from movies like Hitchcock’s Rope, the whole thing is filmed to look like one continuous shot. The camera follows the characters around the Broadway theatre, as one character moves off screen, another comes into the frame and then it follows that character. It feels like you’re watching an actual Broadway play where there’s no cut scenes or edits, or even more so, it feels like you’re a shadow that’s observing all these human interactions behind the scenes. It’s brilliant and even though you know there’s probably a cut when a character moves into a dark hallway or something, you don’t notice it, because everything is seamlessly edited.
Because of the unusually long takes, the actors were required to memorize and perform up to fifteen pages of script at a time, which leads me to the performances. The small ensemble of main actors–Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, and Andrea Riseborough are all amazing, they contribute to the seemingly effortless flow of the film. The stand out here, though, is Michael Keaton who gives an impeccable performance as a man trying to achieve success while battling his own ego. He’s so wrapped up in his own head that the movie switches back and forth from realism to fantasy. He’s most likely either manic depressive or schizophrenic, but the ending of the movie is ambiguous, leaving you to wonder whether Keaton’s character is the only one who’s a little crazy, or if the fantasy is real within the confines of this particular world. Michael Keaton is really something to behold here, and I’d be surprised if he wasn’t nominated for a Best Actor award this coming season.
Edward Norton is another show stealer. He is cocky and humorous and often times lights a fire under Riggan’s ass. He’s kind of a dynamic character overall. One minute he’s being a complete jerk to Riggan, and the next he standing up for him, like when Sam talks to Mike about how Riggan wasn’t a good father. Mike seems confident, but there are times when it becomes clear that there’s something quite different bubbling beneath the surface. I feel like he, and all of the play actors represent those in the business who only flaunt a big ego because they are overcompensating for the little self worth they actually have. I’ve always liked Edward Norton, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen a movie I really liked him in. Even in the couple of Wes Anderson movies he’s been in, I’ve found him somewhat forgettable. In my opinion, this is the best role he’s had in a while.
Birdman acts as a great social commentary on showbiz and the whole idea of success and fame achieved through the medium of “true art,” which in this case would be Broadway, as opposed to Hollywood blockbusters, like a Birdman franchise. As Riggan’s alter ego constantly reminds him, he had it made as a superhero, but Riggan wanted to be something more than that. The movie even criticizes the real life actors who act as Hollywood’s cash cow and give in to playing superheroes in big blockbusters. The fact that Michael Keaton has played Batman before, Edward Norton has played The Hulk, and Emma Stone has been the love interest of Spider-Man, it gives the casting in this movie a bit of irony. They have all delved into the superhero-achieved fame and have felt the pressure that comes with the celebrity status. They haven’t yet become irrelevant like Riggan (although Keaton admittedly hasn’t achieved this much success since Batman), but so many others have felt that sting of being typecast and then thrown away.
There is a lot that can be taken from Birdman, and most of it is simply personal perspective. The great thing about it is that different people can see it and come away having different views, because a lot of the messages are up for interpretation. Aside from that, it succeeds in its flawless direction and cinematography, as well as some outstanding performances by a few very talented actors. I assure you, Michael Keaton will see a nomination for this. This is a movie that demands to be seen, it is one of the best I have seen all year. With one more month to go in 2014, I don’t think there will be too many new films that will push this out of one of the top spots. Some are calling it a masterpiece, I’m not one for throwing that word around lightly, so I will just say it’s very, very good.