(Probable-Oscar-nominee Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance [hereafter referred to simply as "Birdman"] has received thunderous praise from many corners in recent months, and our friend Rohan Morbey jumps in with a considered, but no less enthusiastic, review below. The review appeared in its original form as always over at Rohan's site Closing Credits - do follow him on the Twitters!)
Birdman both is a film lover’s wildest dreams realized in one two hour film and a sharp, witty and sad commentary on all things Hollywood. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film is just as kinetic as any of the actual superhero films it takes swipes at and has an unrelenting energy and creative spark unparalleled by any other cinema experience of 2014. I wouldn’t call it the year's best film but it’s undoubtedly one of the most original experiments I’ve seen in this, or any, year.
The film takes place over a few frantic days where Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton), a former A-List
Hollywood star who had his own comic book movie franchise (the titular ‘Birdman’) is preparing to open a stage play which he has adapted and directed, and is starring in. The project will make or break Thomas financially, morally, and mentally. His subconscious, taking the form of the Birdman character, torments him throughout the film asking why he has sunk so low to appear on stage rather than give audiences ‘what they want,’ namely a fourth movie in the Birdman series.
Things get worse for Thomas when one of the play’s cast members has to be replaced and in comes Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a famous Broadway actor and notorious pain in the arse. Many of the film’s best scenes come from the sparring between Keaton and Norton, two actors who have both been at the very top (Keaton commercially with Tim Burton’s Batman and Norton who emerged as, in my opinion, the best actor of his generation in the late 1990s) but in recent years have been absent from the commercial money-making hits. Iñárritu has always enabled his casts to deliver strong performances and in Birdman everyone has an equal chance to shine, regardless of screen time.
Emma Stone), to challenging the number one theatre critic in New York over the merits and value of Hollywood versus theatre, Keaton shows a range which perhaps he’s not been given the chance to show in any film to date.The casting of Keaton of course adds weight and realism to the character, given the parallels of Keaton’s own career, but thankfully there isn’t too much association in the film with actual comic book movies because Lord knows we don’t need to see another film about that.
Iñárritu taps into a comedic and more playful tone than in his earlier work and perhaps is commenting on the perception of his own career as a director of bleak, depressing ensemble dramas. I have huge admiration for his previous films (21 Grams is still his most accomplished work to date for me) and to see him take a change of direction yet produce a film as captivating and engaging as this.
Each scene in the film plays out in essentially one single shot which is more than just a neat trick, although there are plenty of clever edits along the way. The ‘one shot’ makes these few frantic days feel all-encompassing for there is nowhere for any character to hide, be it the theatre audience, stage hands, angry managers, autograph hunters, or us, the cinema audience. Much like the life of any ‘celebrity’, very little remains personal - unless it’s a vendetta from a theatre critic. Moreover, Iñárritu and DOP Emmanuel Lubezki (whose work in Hollywood film over the past 15 years in simply outstanding) do not keep all the action confined to one location; the camera roves around every room and hallway inside the theatre, into a crowded Times Square at night, into bars and cafes, and even to the top of tall buildings. The camera never appears to stop and takes us on a rollercoaster ride like no other live action film this year, with a screenplay and characters which are actually worth our time listening to.
If Birdman falters it’s in the lack of depth of the themes. Everything is up there on the screen; the dialogue tells us everything but leaves little to really think about once the film is over. There are a few quiet moments for reflection (a rooftop exchange between Norton and Stone offering the film’s most poignant scene of what is lost in youth and what cannot be regained) but I didn’t get that moment of utter wonderment that I got from Boyhood or Under The Skin, two films which are equally as original in their creativity but left me utterly compelled. Birdman takes us on an exciting journey but doesn’t offer anything deeper than what is on the screen.
Minor criticism aside and more than merely a gimmick, Birdman is a milestone in narrative storytelling with what can be done with ‘one shot’, the same way Hitchcock’s Rope was in 1948. Could I bestow a greater compliment than that?