When the trailer for Birdman came out this summer, the joke was obvious: a seemingly washed-up actor, 20 years after he made himself a superstar playing an iconic winged superhero, trying to revive his career with a strange new project. Clearly that description matches both Michael Keaton and his character here, Riggan Thompson. And the meta element plays fantastically in the movie itself, with references to Michael Fassbender and Hugh Jackman and a number of other current cape-wearers. But the meta humor is not the best part of Birdman. No, the best part of Birdman is …everything. From start to finish, this is a uniquely incredible movie. Alejandro González Iñárritu (previously of wistful, hyper self-aware dramas like 21 Grams and Babel) has attempted a dazzling feat, a veritable three ring circus of a cinematic event, and I’ll be damned if every single part of it doesn’t land exactly as intended.
When we first meet Riggan Thompson, he’s hovering in just his undies, a few feet above the ground. Yes, he may or may not have telekinetic powers. Or maybe it’s just in his head, who knows? What definitely is in his head is a gravelly, menacingly honest voice guiding him through his day. Thompson fell out of the public eye a couple decades earlier, but now he’s back, risking what’s left of his reputation and maybe his sanity, plus a whole lot of money on a play that he himself adapted from the Raymond Carver short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He’s also, NBD, directing and starring in the production. Along for the ride is the rest of the play’s cast: Andrea Riseborough as Thompson’s young costar/girlfriend, Naomi Watts as an actress making her Broadway debut, and Edward Norton as Mike, a super-Method Broadway vet prone to quitting/getting fired from productions for frequent spurts of outrageous (and sometimes demented) behavior. Here, Norton also owns his real-life reputation with a meta wink. Zach Galifinakis plays way against type as a fire-quenching producer, the sole voice of reason in a world of crazy. Amy Ryan shows up for a few scenes as Thompson’s ex-wife and is, as always, phenomenal. And finally, Emma Stone knocks it out of the park as Sam, Thompson’s fresh-out-of-rehab damaged daughter. She is a strange oasis of neuroses, just as short-sighted and self-absorbed as everyone else, but in refreshing new ways. And Stone and Ed Norton’s chemistry— as weird as their relationship may be— is beautiful.
While there is a story here— trying to put up a play, encountering difficulties, struggling to maintain personal relationships, wrestling with past regrets— that’s not what this movie is about. So what’s it about, you ask? F*ck if I know. It’s a journey, to be sure. Not just of a man trying to salvage his career and self-respect, but a journey into a decaying mind. Reality and illusion (or possibly delusion) bleed into each other, barriers are set up and walked over. It may sound wholly pretentious to say that Birdman is more an experience than a linear story, but you know what? This movie owns its pretension, and it earns it. So yes, it is an experience; it is a journey. The film is constant motion— quite literally, in fact. Though the story takes place over several days (from final rehearsals through opening night), it maintains the illusion of one nearly continuous shot, with tracking walk and talks that would make Aaron Sorkin weep in his pants. This movie begs for a behind the scenes making-of, with elaborate, tightly choreographed blocking winding through the sprawling backstage corridors of Broadway’s St. James theatre. The urgency this constant movement creates drives the film like a dance, powerful and fluid, set to an intense drum-based score. With constant steadicam and a slight fisheye, making everything we see both excessively real and slightly disturbing, Iñárritu and genius Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki grab the audience and hold us in their collective palm until they make the decision to put us down two hours later.
How often do we criticize a movie by saying we could see what it was trying to do? That it was trying to be something great, and it was admirable, but ultimately it didn’t succeed. Well, you can very clearly see what Birdman was trying to be because it’s all there on the screen. It had high, grand hopes and every one of them landed right where it wanted. There is a crazy spirit here that is desperately lacking from film and art in general. Birdman is so ambitious and wild and fun, it makes for not just a great movie, but a great time. It’s what a roller coaster built by David Lynch, housed inside a Broadway theatre would feel like. It is intense, and over the top, and funny and scary and ambitious and passionate and perfect.
Plus, you get to see Michael Keaton squawk like a bird(man).
Vivian Kane is pretty sure she caught every typo where she accidentally called the character Tim Riggins.