Film Review: Birdman (2014)

Is Birdman the best film of the year? Well, that is always a tricky question. In a certain sense one would have to say yes; it’s hard to imagine another film coming out that will be its equal in energy or aesthetic bravado. From its masterfully executed cinematography, to the cache of brilliantly delivered performances, Birdman is often a joy to watch.

And yet, despite the technical wizardry, and despite showcasing what will be remembered as Michael Keaton’s magnum opus, a fully-formed theme is difficult to find underneath Birdman’s enthralling visuals. There are a number of different ideas evoked, such as the dichotomy between New York and LA, low and high art, but in the end the lasting resonance of Birdman remains in doubt. Of course, that doesn’t take away from its temporal appeal.

Birdman confirms that those who screamed “UNCLE” after the double whammy of Babel and Biutiful did not cry out in vain. As Alejandro González Iñárritu’s fifth feature, Birdman represents a major progression in the director’s career. Gone is the myopic wallowing in emotional maladies, and jettisoned is the filmmaker’s long-running obsession with misery porn. That being said, most of the people in Birdman are miserable, particularly its central character. However, Iñárritu seems to have become wise to the fact that what makes us sad is extremely banal. What is far more interesting is how we deal with it, which in this film is thankfully through comedy.

After years of being confined to the margins, Michael Keaton at last takes center stage (both literally and figuratively) in Birdman. As Riggan Thomson, he plays an actor at the end of his rope, desperate to obtain critical respect after portraying a superhero on the big screen twenty years prior. In order to accomplish this, Riggan attempts to write, direct and star in a theatrical adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” – a potentially foolhardy pursuit that threatens his health, relationships and sanity.

Now, the “meta” connotations of Keaton’s part are obvious, as everyone knows that the actor originated the role of Batman on the big screen. Still these comparisons are at best lazy, as they miss Birdman’s fine portrait of an existential meltdown, which Keaton conveys with a mixture of frenzied intensity and affecting, internalized pain. One can see shades of many of his past performances here, from the spastic rage of Beetlejuice, to the self-destructive ego of his role in the criminally forgotten Clean and Sober.

His excellent work leads one of the finest casts assembled this year, which includes Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone and Amy Ryan. Norton in particular distinguishes himself from the pack, crafting a portrait of antisocial intelligence that nearly equals some of his iconic roles from the 90s. His character, Mike Shiner, is a dandy of a creation, simultaneously brilliant and a blowhard. Positioned by the film as a god of the stage, he often acts as a foil for Keaton’s besieged character.

This sets up probably the film’s most electrifying dynamic. When Keaton and Norton share the screen together they create some of the film’s best scenes. One scene, for instance, revolves around Mike and Riggan going for a drink following a disastrous preview performance, which provides an opportunity for the collective skill of Norton and Keaton to be fully utilized. The preternatural ability of these two actors to adapt to the long, seamless takes of DP Emmanuel Lubezki is showcased in this sequence, in addition to their talent at performing verbose dialogue segments in a seemingly extemporaneous fashion. The strength of the acting is enormously valuable, because easily the worst aspect of this sequence is the dialogue. The writing attempts to sketch out something profound in the dialectical opposition that exists between Riggan and Mike, but for the most part it lays it on way too thick.

The other actors of the primary cast (while good) are ultimately given less to do. Naomi Watts gets many opportunities to turn on the waterworks, but her perpetually tearful performance has all the depth of a leaky faucet. To her credit, Watts tries hard, and a scene where she expresses gratitude to Keaton’s Riggan does have some emotional resonance. Unfortunately, however, the four writers who were responsible for the film’s script did not provide her with a textual foundation on which to build a performance. Essentially, as the great Patrick Bateman once said about himself, Watt’s Lesley is “simply, not, there.”

Yet, what may be lacking in the film’s scripting is more than compensated for in regards to style. Birdman is in many ways a psychodrama above all else, with Keaton’s Riggan at war with himself as much as he is the larger world. Iñárritu plays this out in a number of different ways. He shows the character imagining himself with telepathic control over his immediate environment, and has the film’s score swing from diegetic to non-diegetic at various points in the story. What’s wonderful about these techniques is that unlike earlier efforts like 21 Grams and Biutiful – which gloomily plunged us into traumatic psychological spheres – the heady touches of Birdman are communicative yet never overwhelming.

And yet, even with everything that is swirling around him, the film belongs to Michael Keaton, who dominates the screen. Like many before him, Keaton has always been a well-liked actor, who has only rarely found the right roles for his considerable gifts. He has had many notable parts over the years, of course, including everything from Beetlejuice and Mr. Mom to Batman and Ray Nicolette. The character of Riggan though seems like the one he was born to play, whose combustive mixture of rage, pain, neurosis and inner-goodness is perhaps the juiciest part of his career. His success with the part elevates the film itself, ensuring that, years from now, when we talk about Birdman we will be talking about Michael Keaton.

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