Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Language throughout, some Sexual Content and brief Violence
Directed by: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Written by: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. & Armando Bo
Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Merritt Weaver, Lindsay Duncan & Natalie Gold
I had my reservations about BIRDMAN and was shocked to hear all the praise about how amazing it was (along with possible Oscar buzz). Really? A movie about a washed-up former superhero actor starring a washed-up former superhero actor sounded more like a meta-gimmick that might be worth a few laughs but not a particularly good movie, let alone a supposedly amazing one. So I sat in a movie theater last night and watched BIRDMAN unfold before my eyes. It took less than five minutes for me to fall under the spell of this film. This is a wholly unique and original story with connections to the real world. BIRDMAN is a unique beast and there’s so much for me to say about this film (no spoilers rest assured), that this review is going to be a tad lengthy.
Riggan Thomson is most famously known for playing the iconic superhero Birdman in three giant blockbusters. Those days are long behind him and his career has become a joke. Riggan’s reminded of his has-been stardom on a daily basis. His life is in shambles due to a divorce, his troubled relationship with his ex-junkie daughter, and his creation of a Broadway show. The play (directed by, written by, and starring himself) is in order to make a come-back of sorts. Production problems are all over the place, including crumbling sets, potential law suits, and a big-name method actor who’s becoming a serious asshole behind the scenes. As the opening night approaches, Riggan’s psyche begins to disappear as the voice of Birdman re-enters his head.
Let me say this right up front, I’ve dissed Michael Keaton this year…twice. In the space of about two weeks in March, I railed on two separate films he was slumming in and called one of his performances downright embarrassing. I’m not the only one whose been doing this and his work since the BATMAN films hasn’t done him any favors. Keaton is absolutely fantastic in BIRDMAN! Only he could have played this role and brought such honesty to it. He garners a huge amount of laughs and a lot of sympathy as Riggan. Seeing the movie take shots at real life celebs and films (including Robert Downey Jr., Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and even TRANSFORMERS), adds an even further layer of realism that made me really appreciate Keaton’s talent in this film! Could this tactic be a tad manipulative? Probably, but it worked perfectly!
Keaton delivers the best performance, but he’s far from the only great cast member. Emma Stone plays Riggan’s troubled daughter and is nothing short of amazing. There’s one argument between her and Keaton that showcases the best acting I’ve ever seen from Stone. She delivers a harshness that seems completely real, but also genuinely loves her Keaton’s father character all the same. Edward Norton is hysterical but tragic as a method actor who’s only real when he’s on the stage. All of the other cast members have significant screen presence and colorful characters, even if their screen time is minimal compared to Keaton’s.
The film is also visually awesome in that (save for one scene in the ending) it all seems like one long take. This is made even more impressive because the storyline spans days and nights. I don’t know how many actual tracking shots were used in this film, but they all blend flawlessly into the effect that you’re watching a single unbroken moment that spans over half a week. Director/co-writer Inarritu will follow one character into a room or hallway with the camera and then follow another character leaving from that same location. The fourth wall is broken a couple of times and deliberate references are made to Keaton’s BATMAN films without necessarily going all-out with the image of the Dark Knight (one comment about Clooney cracked me up). This kind of unbroken take scenario has been seen before in other films (2012’s shoddy SILENT HOUSE), but I’ve never seen it done this well for this long. It’s clearly not one take, but it looks authentically like it is one. This also directly allows the viewer to be sucked into a great atmosphere and puts you directly in Keaton’s character’s ever-fragile psyche.
The story itself is hilarious, but also feels very real. It’s compelling and funny, but there’s an intrinsic sadness and tragedy to the circumstances. You’ll laugh, but you might also want to cry in a few scenes. It’s emotional and funny in a “I can see this actually happening” sort of way. No one wants to be insignificant. You can automatically see how the notion being a washed-up has-been would wreak havoc in the mind of someone who formerly played one of the most iconic superheroes, whether they donned bird wings or a bat symbol. The film is compelling the whole way through and so well-paced that you’ll be questioning how those two hours flew by so fast.
At one point in the first 15 minutes of BIRDMAN, an audience member behind me whispered to his friend “What is this movie?!?” That question alone kind of sums up all the praise being thrown onto BIRDMAN and how incredibly special it is. This is a delirious flick full of dark comedy, first world problems that seem devastating, and honest emotion. It’s a perfect film that showcases Michael Keaton’s best performance of his entire career. BIRDMAN is a modern masterpiece that should be celebrated, praised to the heavens, and loved by many for years to come!