Movie Review: Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)

Image Source: Wikipedia (Copyright: Fox Searchlight Pictures, the film publisher or graphic artist.)
Image Source: Wikipedia
(Copyright: Fox Searchlight Pictures, the
film publisher or graphic artist.)

Distributors: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Production Companies: Regency Enterprises and Worldview Entertainment
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Producers: Alejandro González Iñárritu, John Lesher, Arnon Milchan and James W. Skotchdopole
Scriptwriters: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo
Main Cast: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts
Released: August 27 2014 (Venice), October 17 2014 (US) and January 1 2015 (UK)
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Certificate: 15

If you had seen the trailers, Birdman, released in the US in late 2014 but being released as one of the first big movies of 2015 in the UK, may not be the film that you were expecting; however, the story that it does provide is engaging enough that it should satisfy moviegoers.

Birdman sees Michael Keaton play washed-up Hollywood actor Riggan Thomson, whose previous fame had been derived from Riggan playing the role of (yes!) Birdman in a superhero franchise years earlier; however, his only goal now is to re-launch his flagging career through the art of theatre. His personal pet project, a Broadway three-nighter of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” which he is writing, directing and starring in, is viewed as his last chance to show that his versatility and body of work lie beyond the realms of Birdman, a task made more difficult by the frequent criticism within Riggan’s mind (and sometimes in his line of sight) by the Birdman character.

As distracting as these cutting comments are, though, the greater troubles for Riggan come from his fellow cast members, including method actor Mike Shiner (played by Edward Norton), who causes a variety of problems in previews yet manages to become the most-talked actor of the production; Riggan’s girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough), whose presence is made more awkward by that of Riggan’s ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan); and his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), whose drug habits and growing relationship with Mike disappoint and devastate Riggan on both a personal and professional level.

As if Riggan’s woes weren’t unbearable enough, he learns that well-renowned New York film critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) plans to give his show a savage review regardless of its quality on the night, her explanation being that an inexperienced theatre actor like him should not be sullying the reputation of Broadway with his attempt at a production. After much soul-searching, from personal turmoil to acts of near-professional suicide, Riggan decides that the only way to solve his problems is to end the final night of the show’s run with a bang – but can the high risk truly justify the potential rewards?

The plot-line sounds dramatic and at times heart-wrenching, and there are a number of very dramatic scenes; however, Birdman is actually a black comedy which manages to deliver humorous quips and visuals throughout much of the story, including moments of graphic violence and even during an attempt by Mike to make a sex scene with Lesley (Naomi Watts) more realistic by trying to convince her that they should have sex for real due to him being erect (which is made more comical by Mike’s subsequent relationship with Sam).

That being said, the true story of Birdman is one of a failed actor’s last chance to be a somebody, or else risk being forgotten altogether. It is a tale that I am sure many former thespians can relate to; the difference here is that Riggan’s world is crumbling around him at the same time, which clearly affects him, yet his sole intention is to make his final performance on-stage be impactful enough that it would make up for all of his problems.

The tale is made more plausible because of the acting of all involved. Indeed, all involved deliver strong performances, especially Michael Keaton whose portrayal of Riggan in the last-chance saloon of entertainment whilst surrounded by a dysfunctional personal life is utterly believable; many have said that Keaton’s work here is a career performance. Special mention must also go to Edward Norton, who is both a figure of admiration and hatred at various if not simultaneous points, and who could not be more convincing as an actor who thinks on the spot about what lines and actions would be most effective – even with a capacity crowd looking on.

I would be more remiss not to make note of the actual production of Birdman. Emmanuel Lubezki, cinematographer, stated that the movie was filmed (in and around the St. James Theatre in New York City) to try and look like one continuous shot, and it is; although scenes clearly change, and day turns into night before our very eyes and vice versa, to the naked eye the entire movie comes across as one very long scene. It’s an effective tactic which takes some getting used to at first but feels natural as the movie progresses, and is actually logical when you consider that during the average person’s day, what they see really is a long-running scene rather than a series of mini-scenes. That being said, I could not watch many films in their entirety in this way – it’s a hard adjustment when you next come to watch something which does have traditional cutaways – but it works very well here.

There is much to like here, but I did find some elements confusing. Riggan’s previous and current relationships are hard to follow, including a sudden announcement which later proved to be false that Riggan would be a father; the Birdman tie-in, as stated, is prevalent enough yet on the whole insignificant that it may have misled those who watched the film expecting a superhero plot-line; and while I won’t spoil the ending, I can say that some aspects of the conclusion are somewhat odd and even contradictory.

Overall, though, Birdman is definitely worthy of one’s time and captures one’s interest throughout, with you almost begging Riggan to overcome the mounting odds come the final performance of his production. Certain arcs of the story are confusing (perhaps because of the use of one continuous shot which may have eliminated what could have been explanatory scenes) and it may require more than one viewing to truly understand it, but it delivers a unique cinematic experience and plenty of strong performances to ensure that, whilst it is not in the same vein as the superhero franchises which I originally believed it would be akin to, Birdman is a thoroughly engaging movie whereby its most identifiable elements position it to stand as its own as a one-of-a-kind production.

Overall Rating: 8.5/10 – Excellent