Birdman is the kind of movie that should wrap in on itself and swallow its own tail while leaving the audience to stammer incoherently about what they just sat through for two hours. Instead, we get one of the most original, daring, and technical marvels in a very long time. From the very first hits of the jazz score in the opening moments I was entranced and the film never let up. Calling it a masterpiece would seem to border on hyperbole and may be a tad pretentious, so I’ll simply call it a masterpiece. I don’t care. The film deserves it.
There are layers, nuances, and subtleties around every nook and cranny of the film and with time I’m sure sure someone will unpack everything this film has to say. I will not be that person. It is enough for me to know that on first viewing I was blown away. It was a cinematic experience that I haven’t had in quite some time, possibly even years. This is the kind of film that I go to the movies for.
Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thompson, a washed up actor that made his claim to fame playing the superhero Birdman in a trilogy of films twenty some years ago. In a desperate attempt for legitimacy, admiration, love, or repentance (he’s never really sure which) he has written and staged an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story for Broadway that he himself is going to headline. In the days leading up to the opening performance Riggan tries to hold the show and himself together long enough to battle the loathing and self-doubt creeping just below the surface. Along the way he faces off with his co-star Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) who thinks he’s a movie hack that doesn’t belong on the stage where true actors work, his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) who is fresh out of rehab and now working as his assistant even though she clearly hates him, and the voice in his own head who keeps reminding him of the glory days when Birdman was a hit and he was a star.
Keaton is magnificent, giving a twitchy anxious performance that makes it seem as if the role was written for him and him alone. The fact that Keaton was a star twenty years ago for playing Batman and then drastically fell to the wayside after turning down the third installment probably doesn’t hurt. Keaton tackles this role with such guts and gumption that it seems as if he’s saying, “Look! I’m more than Batman too! Hollywood has wasted my talent for twenty years just because I didn’t want to play a vigilante bat anymore! I actually had to star in a damn Herbie movie with Lindsey Lohan! Where she was the headliner!” It’s possible that I’m projecting all of that onto him, but I’m pretty confident that’s what he was thinking. Whatever his actual reasons, Keaton definitely gives a performance that should be applauded and it might just remind everyone that he is a top-notch actor that has been sitting on the sidelines for far too long.
As much praise as Keaton deserves, an equal amount must be hefted onto director Alejandro Gonzalez Innarritu. This is filmmaking in a way that I’ve never seen before. Not only does Innarritu manage to blur the lines between fantasy and realism, but he also blurs the lines between movies and theater. The entire film is shot and edited to look like one take. It is such a breathtaking feat that I’m not sure how I can describe it that would do it any justice. The camera moves in and around the action, through windows and fences, and even through the streets all without stopping or cutting. It is a seamless two hour shot that only breaks off from the characters a few times to let the skyline show us the passage of time. It is a remarkable achievement.
I am clearly smitten with this film. I don’t think I’m being all that coy about it either. I would easily recommend this film to anyone. I know there will probably be a few detractors here and there but they’re probably dead inside and unable to grasp how magnificent this film is. I wouldn’t worry about them if I were you. Don’t be dead inside. Watch Birdman. Enjoy it. Movies like this don’t come around very often. Grade: A+