Birdman in summation: Michael Keaton, a Hollywood actor known for having once played a famous superhero, plays a Hollywood actor known for having once played a famous superhero, who tries to make a transition from film to theater in a film that criticizes show business and, get this, is edited in a way that makes it look like almost the entire movie is done in one single shot! It isn’t really, of course, but the way this film was put together is one of the most delightfully unusual feats of filmmaking I’ve had the privilege of beholding.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu of 21 Grams and Babel fame, and it’s already nominated for 9 Oscars, tied with The Grand Budapest Hotel in terms of most noms this year. Having finally seen it, I can confirm that its nominations are well-earned, as its inevitable wins will be.
The plot: Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is about as washed-up as once beloved movie stars come. His days as the comic book hero Birdman are numbered and modern-day Hollywood seems way more interested in doing films about the likes of The Avengers (he ain’t wrong). As we join him, he’s working on a stage play, adapted from the short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carter. His lawyer/best friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis) produces the play and its stars include his current lover Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and the nervous Lesley (Naomi Watts). He hopes against hope that this play will mark his comeback in the world of respect and relevance, even if he’s starting to feel “invisible”.
Also joining the cast is a gifted but highly unpleasant method actor named Mike (Edward Norton), who doesn’t even hesitate to interrupt Riggan’s play mid-show to criticize his script, acting and inauthentic set design. Riggan wants him gone but Jake insists they need him. Mike later develops a romance with Sam (Emma Stone), Riggan’s neglectful daughter, and as if things aren’t rough enough, there is also a critic played by Lindsay Duncan who wants nothing more than to destroy Riggan’s play once and for all, on the grounds that she has no respect for “Hollywood celebrities pretending to be actors”. There’s also Amy Ryan as Riggan’s ex-wife, who isn’t in the film as much as the poster might have made you think.
Even if some shots might linger on for a bit too long, Birdman is still insanely good, so much so that I was forced to point out on Twitter that the film’s greatness made me forgive the local cinema for playing a Fifty Shades of Grey trailer prior to the screening. (No hard feelings, Bio Rio; your snack selection and audio systems still kick ass!)
For starters, the movie is unspeakably well-acted. The Oscar nominations given to Keaton, Stone and Norton are all in the right place, and given how long all the film’s takes are (they’re also gorgeous, even the ones that look like they’ve been stabilised in post), the performances become especially impressive in how they always pull through and stay believable throughout.
On the note of Birdman‘s apparent lack of cuts, I know the hardcore film buffs will point out to me that there are movies that have experimented with its shots like this before, such as Enter the Void, and even entire movies that truly have been made in one single take, such as Alexander Sokurov‘s Russian Ark from 2002. However, Birdman still plays with the concept in a unique manner, particularly in how it incorporates visual effects into its seemingly endless shots, and it works extra well in the present context since the movie is very much about stage acting, where the performers are never allowed second takes and have to nail every scene in one go, as all the actors in this movie most likely had to. It is also fun to try and guess where all the hidden cuts are and how exactly they’ve been cloaked.
Another thing the viewer can ponder over throughout the movie is how much of what we see is actually happening. Riggan is often seen making weird things happen with his “powers” which, at first, we can assume is all in his head, along with an ominous voice that constantly taunts and scolds him. Towards the end, however, it becomes more unclear and harder to tell what the movie is thinking. The audience is constantly left guessing how much of what they see is real and even when any given hallucination sequence has ended, they still won’t be entirely sure.
This is one of the best things about Birdman; it is unpredictable, not just in how it plays with the borders between its reality and the fantasies of its main character, but also in its plot twists and humour. On the subject of comedy, the film also takes some daring jabs at how people in show business work and even the nature of us critics, which is sometimes just as depressing as it is dead-on and funny. Of course, as every review of this movie ever has already stated, Michael Keaton’s past career as Batman is also alluded to, but what fewer critics have pointed out is one aspect of Naomi Watts’ character, which I shall leave unspoiled, that seems like a reference to her part in Mulholland Drive. Maybe it’s just me.
Birdman has a great story, towering performances all-around, smashing cinematography, a most certainly interesting soundtrack, top-notch writing, clever editing tricks obviously, and a great deal of thought-provoking commentary on the entertainment world as of today. It made me laugh and it damn near made me cry. Only damn near, though.
If I were you, I’d go see it; especially if the hypothetical reader in this scenario is as much a fan of movies, acting and filmmaking as I am. I’d rather not have someone watch this under the misconception that it’s “some boring flick about Broadway and some old guy”.