Review: Birdman (2014)

Birdman

Rating

Director
Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Screenplay
Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., Armando Bo
Length
119 min.
Starring
Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Katherine O’Sullivan, Merritt Weaver, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan
MPAA Rating
R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence

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Review
The percussive sound of the drum score in Birdman jazzes up the staccato dialogue, blending us into a world of farce, frailty and the forbidden desire to be appreciated.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s films have nestled themselves into the bosom of reality in ways that are contemplative, yet restrictive. His characters find their way into more difficult situations by failing to see just how far they’ve descended towards madness. Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) tackles those themes in a new, more compact way, taking the audience inside the fracturing mind of a former box office idol whose intervening career crumbled into almost non-existence.

Michael Keaton digs into the role of Riggan, a washed-up actor whose appearance I a string of popular super hero films have left his career in shambles. Wanting to move past the familiarity of those roles, he’s in the midst of his Broadway debut, a production he’s written and directed, but the fate of which hangs in the balance as his ego and fear mingle with outside forces to tear down the support that holds the performance up. It would be impossible not to note the irony of casting Keaton in this role, after having suffered a similar fate after his once-popular streak of 1980’s features came to a crashing halt in the early 1990’s.

Emma Stone supports Keaton as his brassy daughter Sam, a recovering addict who wants little to do with her dispassionate father, but has little choice, being stuck with him while her mother’s unable to take her in. Their relationship is a jumbled mess of mistakes and recriminations. Stone’s flirtatious, outrageous performance anchors a film that’s edified by its own minimalism. She’s bold and combative in a way that doesn’t feel simplistic or overzealous.

The same can be said of Edward Norton as Keaton’s last-ditch effort to get the play launched after the last-minute cranial accident that took his co-lead out of the picture. Norton’s Mike is a noted Broadway thespian who can bring financing with his mere attachment to a project, something Riggan desperately needs. The problem is Mike is a self-involved, pretentious asshole who demands that he be permitted to drink liberally and embody the drunkenness of his role while pushing back against any direction Riggan tries to give him. Norton hasn’t been this astounding in many years, giving the film another jolt in the acting department.

Inarritu knows how to surround himself with talented actors whose only joy is bringing modestly superficial characters into larger-than-life reality. Aside these three main characters, the rest of the cast delivers spot-on performances that energize the proceedings. Zach Galiafianakis proves to be more inventive than we’ve seen him before as Riggan’s stage manager; Naomi Watts plays the endearing, supportive leading lady; and Andrea Riseborough is self-effacing as the play’s ingénue supporting actress. This trio rounds out the superb ensemble.

There are countless emotional revelations in Birdman and Inarritu’s screenplay is probably his best to date. Taking a dig at the artifice of the film industry while going behind the scenes of a play in another artifice-heavy industry, live theatre, is a compelling parallel. Wanting to be seen as a success on the Great White Way in spite of being a byproduct of the blockbuster machine, Riggan must come to terms with the fact that Broadways is as narcissitic and juvenile as the Hollywood studio system and significantly less forgiving when it seems big names trying to resurrect their careers by deigning to descend into the world of live theater.

Neither side recognizes that they’ve all come from or want to go to the same place. There’s equal measures of jealousy and resentment that swirl around Riggan’s attempts to return to his roots, roots that no one seems to comprehend the way he does. Inarritu’s seamless single-take motif enables the audience to feel like they are effectively living the troubling rebirth of the Riggan character. This isn’t just a film about the making of a play, it’s a film about the transformative power of introspection, of digging into our fragile psyches and drawing out that which has kept us isolated. It’s about striking out against those who would question or motives or quash our ambitions and finding a way to transcend the meager binary environment in which we struggle to find success.

Birdman is a unique art film that demands its audience contemplate the nature of fame, its detrimental effects on those who have endured it and the necessity of finding a way to push past it and reclaim a tiny morsel of normality in a world that prefers the simple joys of artifice and discovering little meaning in a superficial world. It’s about daring to do what others don’t want you to do or don’t think you can do, staying true to your identity when others question it and making your way back to your foundations as a human being without sacrificing your sanity.

Review Written

March 30, 2015

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