Birdman is expanding to a bunch of theaters this week and so it is definitely worth my time to try to put some key presses into trying to quantify the weird, engrossing experience that was my experience watching that movie.
Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor who achieved great fame 20 years ago by playing the super hero Birdman – which is an obvious satire of Batman and in no way related to the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character. Since walking away from that franchise at its greatest popularity, Riggan has struggled to keep his career going and has hedged his bets on writing, directing, and starring in a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Also he has magic powers and is haunted by the voice of Birdman.
This is Riggan’s last chance and he has to fight for it as he faces doubts and criticisms from his daughter (Emma Stone), his lawyer (Zach Galifianakis), his last-second replacement co-star (Edward Norton), the press, critics, and a skeptical public. Through all this the movie makes it clear that Riggan just wants to be considered an artist – that’s why he’s doing this play, that’s why he walked away from his blockbuster franchise, that’s why he wasn’t a better father, or person. Whether he really is an artist, whether he’s actually being true to himself or if it’s really all about ego… That’s up to you.
Which is the way things should be in a movie this intensely surreal. On top of Riggan’s supernatural abilities, the movie is shot and edited to feel like it’s almost one long, uninterrupted take and I could definitely feel it. Despite being mostly scenes of people arguing about acting and other theatrical logistics, the whole two hours were fairly tense just because of how aware I was of the number of plates they had to keep spinning between getting actors to their marks, making sure they perform well, and everything else behind the camera like sound, camera angles, and lighting. It’s really quite gripping.
Birdman is a complex film worthy of some serious conversation – I had a hard time just trying to wrestle my many thoughts about it into this brief review. It is an exciting showcase of the possibilities of modern filmmaking grounded by some terrific performances by Keaton and Norton and an earnest, if not particularly unique, take on the creative process. Almost like a Charlie Kaufman film, except one that’s happy to pay just as much attention to slapstick and dick jokes as it is its lofty themes.