When does passion for your art cross over to vanity and become fodder to feed the ego? That is one of the many questions that director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, Babel) asks in his latest film Birdman. The movie is a creative character exploration of a man who has lost touch with his family, career, and his passion for his art and life.
Michael Keaton deserves any acclaims that come his way for his layered portrayal of Riggan Thomson. Thomson is former superstar actor who experienced his heyday in the 90’s for playing Birdman, a costumed superhero. Thomson left the role years before and disappeared from the spotlight. In a last ditch effort to revive his career, he writes, directs, and stars in his first Broadway play. What ensues is behind-the-scenes chaos that would make the Muppets proud. Thomson struggles to hold the fraying production together while attempting to maintain his sanity.
While this is a dialogue heavy film, Iñárritu manages to find endless creative ways to accentuate the performances. The most notable visual trick that Iñárritu pulls off is that the movie seems as if it is one long shot. There are no noticeable cuts, which makes the viewer feel as if they are a character witnessing everything firsthand. The camera itself feels alive as it follows characters and the narrative, around the cramped theater space. The level of timing between the camera movements and actor’s performances had to be timed to the second and Iñárritu pulls it off flawlessly. The technique also makes a statement that the film actors we are watching, are pulling off just as challenging a feat as stage actors.
Edward Norton shines as Mike Shiner, an accomplished theater actor who is a jerk and will let you know it. He is called in to replace one of the actors who was mysteriously injured the day before the preview performance. Mike is abrasive and unrelenting and his method acting antics throw a monkey wrench into Thomson’s production. Much like Keaton, Norton delivers a masters class in acting. One of the fascinating aspects of the movie is that the actors are acting as performers, who are acting in a play. It really is amazing to see the different levels those two in particular, can take it to. They both give raw performances that leave their real life personalities open for criticism and speculation.
Keaton’s performance as Thomson is clearly informed by his own experiences. However, it never hits too on the nose and always feels part of the overall narrative. Keaton is asked to go to a lot of places that must have hit home. Ranging from the fact that he laid the foundation for a generation of actors who are now making millions in superhero films. To the fact that he has clearly aged and might not want to be seen by the public. Emma Stone, Zack Galifianakis, and Naomi Watts, all give strong supporting performances that complement the chaos surrounding the play. At times they are the cause of the problems, other times they are asked to react to the absurdity that they witness. They all benefit the film with sharp timing and humor at key moments.
The movie also explores the various ways that the media has the power to impact perceptions. Iñárritu touches on media reach both old and new. Ranging from a movie critic from a leading newspaper that has the power to crush the play with a bad review. To the impact that bloggers and Twitter has to spread information like never before. Seeing the different ways that Thomson can manage to get bad attention for himself is definitely part of the fun as well.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is undoubtedly one of the best comedies and films of the year. The heavy handed showbiz satire works on many technical and emotional levels. The movie will not speak to all audiences, particularly with its artistic flourishes and open-to-interpretation ending. But the performances and humor are worth the price of admission themselves. This hopefully marks the beginning of a resurgence for Keaton who bares his soul and is beginning to receive attention for his work. For fans of film, theater, and show business in general, this is must-see viewing. Take a step behind the curtain and watch the Birdman take flight.