At one point in Birdman “or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)“, Michael Keaton as ‘celebrity turned serious actor’ Riggan Thomson rants at a vicious New York Times critic Tabitha (the excellent Lindsay Duncan – – “About Time”; “Dr Who: Waters of Mars”) about how all critics lamely fall on “labels” and “comparisons” to describe their subjects, never getting to the guts of how the art made them actually FEEL. And it made me FEEL like he was talking directly to me!
So how did Birdman make me feel? What would be the snappy tag lines I would put on the poster?
“Full of wonder”
“Slightly irritating” (that one probably wouldn’t make the poster).
Birdman is definitely not a mainstream film, and it is likely to baffle and frustrate audiences almost as much as last year’s almost impenetrable “Under the Skin”. Riggan Thomson is part long-in-the-tooth actor and part superhero, at least in his fevered mind if not in reality. Surfing the C-list celebrity ocean following past glories in ‘Birdman’, ‘Birdman 2’ and ‘Birdman 3 (The Quest for Peace)’, Thomson needs to prove to himself, his inner daemons and the world in general that he is a “real actor” by staging a play on Broadway. (In this regard, following Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman”, this is almost art imitating life for Keaton). For this heroic effort he chooses a short play by Raymond Carver called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” adapting it to allow himself to shine in the spotlight.
Thomson provides Broadway debuts for friend Lesley (Naomi Watts; “King Kong”; “The Impossible”) and crazy girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough; “Oblivion”; “Brighton Rock”), but is less than impressed with his male co-star. ‘Birdman’ exits the guy with an “accident”, but unfortunately that introduces a cuckoo into the acting nest in the form of famous actor Mike (Edward Norton), who risks completely upstaging Thomson with his theatrical brilliance.
This introduction leads to one of the best laugh-out-loud lines of dialogue so far in 2015: “How do you know Mike Shiner?” asks Keaton; “We share a vagina” replies Watts.
Again with this introduction, we see art imitating life, since Norton’s performance (particularly in the first reel of the film) genuinely does risk outshining Keaton, despite all of his Oscar hype. I thought after “Whiplash” my choice for Best Supporting Actor was fairly safe with J.K Thompson…. but after seeing Norton’s performance I could see the race as much closer.
Overall though this remains Keaton’s film, and his performance is remarkable in an extremely varied and challenging role.
Also remarkable is the gorgeously kooky Emma Stone as his sexually-louche and druggie daughter-cum-assistant Sam. This is particularly true in one astonishingly good rant to camera, where Stone delivers what could be termed an “Anne Hathaway Les Miserable” moment in its Oscar-worthyness. In each film, Stone is just getting better and better. I have said it before and will say it again, Stone is a future Streep in the making.
As the previews of the play progress towards a dramatic opening night, Thomson’s grip on reality continues to unravel, as pressures get forced on him from all sides: artistic via Shiner; financial via his managerial colleague Jake (a dramatically better Zach Galifianakis than in the “Hangover” series); and via parental guilt over the relationship with his daughter. His outbursts both as Thomson and (down two octaves) Birdman become more and more extreme and paranoid – “I’m a f****** trivial pursuit question” he rants at one point while destroying his dressing room in rock group style.
The startlingly daring drum soundtrack by Antonio Sanchez actually counterpoints the action extremely well. Breaking down the fourth wall, the drummer keeps randomly appearing in a most surprising manner.
So what of the “Slightly irritating” poster quote? Director Alejandro González Iñárritu undoubtedly delivers a tour de force of a film; an instant classic that will be poured over by film students for years to come. However, he delivers the whole film in the style of one continuous take (give or take the odd time lapse sequence). And whilst this was entertaining to start with, I personally started to find it tiresome and irritating by the end of the film. Like Hitchcock’s “Rope”, also filmed in this way, you are constantly distracted by looking for where the edits actually fall, sometimes seeing what looks to be an inconsistent couple of frames where perhaps no cut existed in the first place!
Worthy of note though was Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity”) who’s cinematography also bore many similarities to Hitchcock classic effects, including long drifting panning shots that appear to seamlessly melt through metal railings etc. Very impressive.
In summary, this is a must see for lovers of the art of filmmaking, and Birdman should feature very strongly at the Oscars in a month’s time.
Fad Rating: FFFFf.