This is the first truly great movie of the fall and one of the BEST OF THE YEAR, with OSCAR written all over it. BIRDMAN stars MICHAEL KEATON and a breathtaking cast of actors who knock themselves out in a flabbergastingly audacious backstage look at actors, viral media, critics, fame, art, relationships, truth, artifice, and reality. It’s wildly funny, thrilling, and heartbreaking, cutting deep into our hopes, fears, and need to matter in a world awash in consumerism, and just too damn much of everything. The movie is a brilliant call to arms against the “cultural genocide” perpetrated by the purveyors of the superficial and social media terrorists, in search of ego enhancement and the everlasting buck. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The opening shot plunges us right in. Real or not real? What we see is an actor from behind, in his underwear, hovering above the floor in the yogic lotus position, in a typically decrepit Broadway dressing room, preparing to walk out onstage for the last rehearsal before the first preview of a show he’s adapted, directed, and starring in. We later learn that he’s a famous movie star named Riggan Thomson and that the voice running through his head belongs to “The Birdman”– talisman and curse. It’s the role he cannot escape, a comic book superhero named THE BIRDMAN who made Riggan a superstar. (Yes, Michael Keaton was BATMAN). Now, having turned his back on yet another BIRDMAN sequel and the commercial success it promises, Riggan is looking to reinvent himself as a serious actor, but “The Birdman” is on his tail and remains the nagging criteria against which he measures everything, and to whom he has sacrificed his marriage and relationship with his daughter.
Written and directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (BABEL, 21 GRAMS, BIUTIFUL) the film virtually unfolds in what looks like one, long take. This is an illusion of course; the film was actually shot in a series of long tracking shots–in themselves amazing feats of choreography thanks to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki– but then edited to look as though the camera never stops rolling. The technique is stunningly effective and propels the action with claustrophobic intimacy, intensity, and momentum; we cannot escape the action of the film, nor can the actors escape their reality — except by acting.
As he makes his way out of the dressing room, through the bowels of an old theater and out onto the boards where many of the greats have trod before, strutting and fretting their “hour upon the stage,” putting their truth, their blood on the line, Riggan walks into a scene where a group of actors is rehearsing– or not. The line is immediately blurred and Shakespeare’s words are here made cinematically concrete: are we not all actors, and does what we do signify anything?
Enter a new actor to replace a bad one: Mike Shiner in the person of ED NORTON, a deeply respected powerhouse of an actor in real life, here playing a dynamically gifted thespian with madness in his method. But what we see Mike proceed to do with the scene we’ve just watched– is mind-bogglingly enlightening. In real life, Mike admits, he cannot get it up; onstage is the only place he is truly alive. As an actor he has superpowers, applying his technique, and launching his reworking of the scene into another dimension, distilling the truth of it. As we watch him do it, we suddenly realize that it’s ED NORTON the real life actor (who once played THE HULK), playing another actor, Mike, who is acting– really good acting! Stay with me here. That’s the kind of head this movie puts you in, telescoping us out and up, allowing us to hover above our own lives and observe ourselves for who we are.
This is the best performance Michael Keaton has ever given, in a career of great performances, comic and tragic: NIGHT SHIFT, BATMAN, MR. MOM, BEETLEJUICE, CLEAN AND SOBER– a quirky career which has been appreciated under the radar. One of his best scenes here involves Riggan’s excoriating the most influential critic (and all critics!) in town, a witless bitch named Tabitha Dickinson played with sneering disdain by Lindsay Duncan. A later scene finds Riggan overwhelmed by a group of entertainment media jackals and their moronic questions about what he might have injected into his face. (RENEE ZELLWEGER’s face was actually the subject of a NIGHTLINE story! News anybody?).
Then there is huge-eyed EMMA STONE who practically leaps off the screen as Keaton’s disheveled, disaffected, druggie daughter who has suffered the fallout of her parents’ divorce and her father’s ego. She incises her father’s persona with scathing accuracy, and enough neediness, self-absorption, and resentment beneath the hurt to let us know she’s her father’s daughter. Stone, too, leaves blood in her wake.
There are so many great performances here– Zach Galifianakis as the theater manager who will say and do anything–coddle, cajole, curse–to keep the show running and sell tickets. Naomi Watts kills it as a leading lady desperate to keep her footing in her first Broadway show, and her relationship with her leading man, the aforementioned loose cannon Mike Shiner, from destroying them both. Amy Ryan and Andrea Riseborough as women in various stages of wisdom and distress, deepen the black comedy.
The final scenes, are a surreal flight of fancy and up for debate: has Riggan triumphed over or absorbed his superhero persona? Or has The Birdman won? Or have the critics? What is success and what is it all worth? THE nagging question for this actor, and all of us starring in our own lives, is how he/we find REAL validity? What has value, and how do we know? When an actor transcends his ego onstage, we say he has shed blood. And that is increasingly difficult in an era that defines success as a function of fleeting and metastatic viral recognition. Ed Norton’s character nails it when he says, “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” But then, what is prestige?
We all shed blood one way or another, onstage or off. But this critic knows for sure– BIRDMAN is a bloody good film. My heart was racing as I left the theater, and I can’t stop thinking about it. That’s all I know and all I need to know. SEE THIS. Then watch for it at OSCAR time– not that that matters.