Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), famous only for his portrayal of the superhero Birdman in the 1990s, finds himself nearing the end of his tether as his Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ makes its way towards its first performance. In the escalating battle between his ego, his fresh-from-rehab daughter/assistant (Emma Stone), New York critics, veteran theatre actors (Ed Norton) and his grasp on reality, will anybody come out the victor?
At the time of writing this, Birdman has happily walked off with two Golden Globes, one for best actor in a comedy or musical for Keaton and one for best screenplay. A brief glance at IMDb will show you just how hot this film is going to be at awards season, so I guess the question is, are these accolades deserved? The short answer is ‘yes’, a longer, yet just as unhelpful answer is ‘oh flip, yes’, and a longer answer punctuated with reasons can be found below.
If we’re going to talk about Birdman then its prime focus is going to be on Michael Keaton. Going into the cinema I thought to myself, what was the last thing I saw Keaton in? I thought there must be a reason for this apparent absence from cinema, but once the credits began to roll all I could think was ‘damn, I’ve missed Michael Keaton, he’s ace, I want a t-shirt with his face on it’. Now Keaton’s performance isn’t just great for the whole Birdman/Batman thing, it’s a brilliantly raw depiction of someone trying to do something that they think matters, fighting his reputation (and his inner Birdman voice) whilst using it as a crutch to reach better things. When this emotionally-crippled former Hollywood name bumps into other brilliant performances by Naomi Watts as a wannabe Broadway star, Zach Galifianakis’ uptight producer and his Amy-Ryan-shaped ex-wife it’s fantastic, but with Ed Norton and Emma Stone it gets even better.
I last remember Ed Norton in The Grand Budapest Hotel as Henckels, the stern but moral and forgiving army officer, but in Birdman as Mike Shiner, he’s an absolute theatre creep and he’s bloody incredible to see. Likewise I’m a fan of Emma Stone, but as Riggan’s long-suffering daughter Sam she brings another kind of raw, painful youth to the Broadway struggle that is flipping fantastic. Oscars for everyone!
One of the reasons why the performances pop as they do has got to partly do with the editing and cinematography of Birdman. Yes I know how that sounds, bear with me (doing a bear impression now is entirely optional, however). Aside from being bookended with flashing ‘it’ll-make-sense-later’ images of falling stars and jellyfish, Birdman is shot in a way so that it looks like all one take. Yes it may use time-lapses here and there but the overall effect is enough to make Alfonso Cuaron blush. It warps the film into another sort of play, where every and all action becomes all the more prescient, all the more real, even when Riggan’s flits of fantasy have him using his telekinetic powers or daydreaming about himself as Birdman. It’s seamless, fluid and such a bloody impressive feat that I’d be personally hurt if Birdman doesn’t take critical and award-waving acclaim for its use of editing.
If I wanted to lob any kind of criticism at Birdman, it’s be that at times it wanders into the territory of almost-too-smart-for-you. Its cinematography is lush, its actors are on point, but when paired with skittering jazz drums and the not-quite-soapbox mentality of its underlining message about wanting to be adored by the public it starts to look like it may be aiming too high in certain places. Thankfully it brings it all back down with some crude and well-punctuated gags about dicks, men dressed only their underwear and a whole lot of swearing.
The overall tone of Birdman, though, is unmistakeable; it’s about someone trying to find meaning in their life in the old-fashioned way, before Twitter, Facebook and the internet. It’s about trying to find that gesture that will fix everything and although a gamble it may be, if it works it’ll be worth it. It’s about moving on from what came before and most of all, it’s about why New York theatre is a bastard. Okay, so it’s a few tones.
Birdman is not what you think it is; it’s not about Birdman insomuch as it’s about the shadow he cast over poor ol’ Riggan Thomson. It’s definitely not the funniest thing I hope to see all year, but it’s undeniably something special that pokes classification in the eye, flips the table and runs off with its wife. You won’t see anything else like Birdman for a while, and if you’re into peculiar cinema about things that aren’t about things but, oh wait, there were about these other things the whole time, then you’ll enjoy it just as much as I did. Which, in case the whole rambling jumble of words above was not quite clear enough, was a damn lot.
Starring: Michael Keaton, Ed Norton, Emma Stone
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Date: 2 January 2015