Birdman is an exciting, eclectic film that takes what people might expect from a narrative movie and presents it in a way that is completely unique. However, along the way, the movie seems to drop storylines and ignore certain characters in exchange for exploring the fractured psyche of its lead character. While the movie leaves the viewer with more questions than answers, there is no denying that this is one of the best constructed movies, best acted and most interesting movies that came out in 2014.
Michael Keaton is Riggan Thomson, an actor who starred as a superhero in a popular franchise over 20 years ago and is now fighting for relevance. The fact that Keaton last starred as Batman in Batman Returns the same year that this movie said his final appearance as Birdman happened is no coincidence. This is a movie that takes the career of Michael Keaton and places it into this fictional world to make this the most meta movie you have seen in a long time.
Riggan is now trying to “do something important” for the first time in his life. Thanks to a compliment written on a cocktail napkin, when he was acting in school plays, by famed novelist Raymond Chandler, Riggan decides to write, direct and star in a stage play adaptation of his short story What We Talk about When We Talk about Love. He spent all his money to get this stage play made and even took out a second mortgage on the house that he and his wife set up for their daughter.
This is, as far as Riggan is concerned, his last chance.
We see from the very start of the movie that Riggan is crazy. Well, he is either crazy or he actually has superpowers that he has kept hidden for all these years. The movie is set up to show the viewer that Riggan has superpowers, but the problem is that the movie is also set up to show us the movie – mostly – from Riggan’s point-of-view, and he is the most unreliable narrator in a film.
After one of the co-actors in the film has a stage light fall on his head, a new actor is found in Broadway star Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). This is a well-painted character, one of the only well-painted characters in the film. If you have ever known a true stage star, one that feels like stage is the only true form of acting, you will know someone who acts just like Mike Shiner in this movie. Yes, it feels a little stereotypical at points, but these people really exist.
That also brings one of the big problems in this film. Alejandro González Iñárritu seems to have a complete contempt for stage actors, celebrities and critics and he paints them all in a very negative light in this film. The only person that he seems to have any respect for is Riggan, and by the end, he even makes him look like just about the worst person in the world.
Emma Stone stars as Sam, Riggan’s daughter who just got out of rehab and feels her life is horrible because her dad was never there for her, and when he was, he had the audacity to make her feel like she was someone special. Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is his co-star that he had an affair with who might be pregnant and spends the entire movie acting like a caricature of a wronged woman. Naomi Watts is Lesley, an actress who has worked all her life to get to this point but realizes that she has no self respect. She overacts on the stage and Watts pretty much overacts this entire movie.
Every character in this film is larger-than-life and completely unrealistic, with the exception of Edward Norton as Mike. Norton is someone who actually knows when he should rein his character in. None these characters, with their problems and character arcs, see a resolution. As a matter of fact, when they are no longer needed, they are completely dropped and ignored. How does Lesley and Mike deal with their problems? What about Laura? Does Sam finally snap out of it and act like an adult? The movie basically says that it doesn’t care. None of those characters even matter.
All that matters is Riggan and that is the entire point of this movie. Birdman shows us that this is Riggan’s world and everyone else in his world is a co-star. No one’s story matters but his and that is the direction that Alejandro González Iñárritu plays the story. Riggan is self absorbed and the movie is just as self important and stylized.
This is where the brilliance of the movie lies.
The film flows brilliantly thankls to Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree Of Life), who shoots the movie like it is one long continuous shot. Of course, the movie spans days, so that is not what this is about. However, the stylized shooting makes this a movie that sucks in the audience and refuses to let them go. Also, much like Anna Karenina last year, this movie takes a film about a stage play and makes it feel like a stage play on film.
There are a lot of people who will hate Birdman. I assume a lot of critics will hate the movie because of its statements on criticism, with the biggest incompetent person in the movie being the New York Times film critic who decides that she will destroy the play before she even sees it. The movie preaches that critics who are pretentious are destroying the ability to see the beauty in film and stage plays. Because Iñárritu created Birdman to look like such a pretentious effort, he is setting himself up for a lashing.
However, the acting in this movie is great, albeit over-the-top, the style of the film as it travels non-stop from one location to the next is exhilarating, and the music score is brilliant. This is a movie that has problems in the story and structure, ironic since Riggan talks about those things in the movie, but perfect in style and execution. You will either love or hate this movie. In my mind, Alejandro González Iñárritu deserves an Oscar nomination for the direction, despite the problems in story.