There is a lot to love and admire in Birdman thanks to an innovative story, top-class performances, dazzling cinematography and catchy score, says Ryan Pollard.
Actor Riggan Thomson is most famous for his movie role from over twenty years ago of the comic book superhero Birdman, almost to the point where his association with the role completely took over his life and Birdman is more renowned than “Riggan Thomson” the actor. Now washed-up and past middle age, Riggan is trying to establish himself as a true artist by writing, directing, starring in and co-producing a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. As he’s desperate to make it a big success, he’s also having to deal with his daughter, who has just got out of drug rehab and has become his production assistant, as well as a difficult supporting actor in his play, Mike Shiner, who he fears is overshadowing him. But Riggan’s biggest problem is wrestling with his own insecurities and demons, which are manifested by Birdman, who he often battles with both internally and externally.
Birdman is an interesting film on so many levels, featuring in so many awards categories, even recently winning the Oscar for Best Picture over Boyhood, which everyone thought was going to win. Whatever you may think of the film, it’s certainly bold, ambitious, occasionally frustrating, yet it requires your full attention and is something that you might have to watch more than once to fully appreciate it. Birdman is a lot of things, but immediately accessible may not be one of them.
It’s all a game of many parts, but it definitely achieves more right than wrong, and one of its strongest factors lies in its story. It can be seen as a dark comedy about a group of people trying to organise a play, yet it’s also a story about the nature of fame and celebrity and how both of those can be seen as a craving drug. It can also be a sharp cutting indictment about what can be interpreted as art, yet it’s also dealing with the subjects of duality, psychosis, aging, and relevancy in a technological mass-media world. It has all these different themes and ideas going on, and even then, you still feel as if you’re only scratching the surface with even more to uncover, yet it never feels cluttered or overloaded. What’s also intriguing is that to have in the story an element of surreal, magical realism, adds up to something that is quite out there and risqué, yet exciting in a bonkers way. At times, it almost seems like a crazed, middle-aged, mid-life-crisis, male version of Black Swan with this also delving inside the mind of someone having a breakdown both physically and mentally.
The film has an all-star cast and no one gives small performances, despite how much screen-time each performer gets. At the age of 63, Michael Keaton is an actor who has been criminally underused and underutilised in his career, despite giving some iconic performances. While Batman and Beetlejuice come to mind very quickly, it’s also worth noting his performances in My Life, Clean and Sober and Jackie Brown, plus he was also great in the recent Robocop remake. With Birdman, he delivers one of his best performances, expertly perfecting the accuracy, the efficiency and precision, which he executes in every move or mannerism he performs. Plus, he adds a real sense of depth and poignancy, and that’s all accomplished by the main man himself in a role he will have no doubt have waited decades for.
Edward Norton is someone who’s also been heavily underutilised in his career, no doubt because of the stories about how difficult he can be with his directors, which is something that is almost parodied here. Norton plays someone that is slimy and obnoxious, yet can be extremely humorous without a punchline. Emma Stone meanwhile is absolutely astonishing in creating a character that’s also grappling with her own inner demons and turmoils in her own life. She can be snarky and quippy one minute, yet raw and heartfelt the next, and her relationship with Keaton is some of the film’s strongest moments. The other supporting performers, although brief, make their mark brilliantly as well, from the vivacious Naomi Watts, the baffled Zach Galifianakis, the sexy Andrea Riseborough, and the seasoned Amy Ryan. Even Lindsay Duncan makes a strong impression in her short cameo.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is technically astounding, being every bit as breathtaking and as magical as it was in Gravity, and certainly shows how Lubezki is a force to be reckoned with. As for the score, Antonio Sánchez’s jazz drumming will leave your ear canals buzzing, whilst making you tap your feet or bob your head along with it. A lot of people found the score to be distracting, but it was certainly the least of the film’s problems.
The film has got reviews saying it redefines cinema and that it’s one of the best films, if not the best film, of 2014. However, personally, while I found Birdman to be steady, it wasn’t completely spectacular. The direction rather bothers me as I found it to be somewhat distracting for my taste. The whole thing is done as if everything happens in one single take with a few tiny exceptions. At the beginning, it did appear to be very swirling and evocative, but then after a while, it became distracting and a tad full of itself. It was like watching a magician performing a magic trick that you’d find to be amazing, but then he performs that same trick again and again and again throughout to the point where you’d think, “Yeah, I know you can do that, but can you stop doing that.” The direction was so self-consciously stylistic it occasionally came between me and the story.
This is all down to the director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, who has certainly learnt to lighten up after Biutiful, yet still hasn’t fully delivered on the promise of Amores Perros, which was his brilliant directorial debut. Also, its enjoyment is also slightly hampered by the fact that Boyhood, which is a superior film, lost out to the Best Picture/Director prize at the Oscars over this, which is shame since the Academy have basically overlooked Richard Linklater’s strong, 12-year long humanist and realistic approach to childhood and adulthood for Iñárritu’s flashy, distracting, full of itself style.
Overall, whilst Birdman is an adventurous, insane, multi-layered experience that gets more right than wrong, it’s not quite the masterpiece that everyone says it is. There is a lot to love and admire with its innovative story, its top-class performances, dazzling cinematography and catchy score, but Alejandro González Iñárritu’s distracting direction occasionally got in the way of the enjoyment, and in the end, Boyhood is the most successful by comparison in terms of both its ambition and style.