I love seeing a big American film that does something new and original. Birdman, the new film by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, not only does that, but sticks its tongue out at all the old, derivative unoriginal Hollywood junk littering our screens at the same time. It’s hard to predict how such an approach will do with audiences at the multiplex—in any case, one can’t help but admire the sheer nerve of this movie.
Michael Keaton plays a former Hollywood star named Riggan Thomson, no longer getting big film parts, and now mostly known for having starred in an old blockbuster franchise about a superhero called Birdman. There’s a bit of self-referential humor here in that Michael Keaton actually starred in the first two installments of the Batman franchise produced by Tim Burton back in the late 80s and early 90s. Anyway, Thomson is now directing and starring in a Broadway play which he adapted himself from a Raymond Carver story. He sees this project as an opportunity for redemption, to do something that’s artistically meaningful, and in the process maybe lift himself out of a deep depression.
The supporting cast is stellar. Emma Stone is on hand playing Riggan’s jaded and resentful daughter, half-heartedly working as her father’s personal assistant, and Zack Galifianikis plays Riggan’s producer, lawyer, best friend, and nervous wreck, Jake. When a skylight falls injuring one of the actors, they manage to get a well-known Broadway star to step in, the arrogant, infuriating, yet super-talented Mike Shiner, played by Edward Norton.
The film feels a bit like a play in some ways because all the action takes place in the theater—the stage as well as the various back rooms, hallways, and dressing rooms, and a little bit of the Times Square neighborhood surrounding it—but this somewhat confined impression is offset by a bold stylistic choice. The entire film is shot as if in one continuous take—no cuts, just the camera always moving around, following different characters. Of course there are cuts, but they’re carefully disguised so that you never actually break with a setting or even within one, and this, coupled with the jazzy percussion that sometimes punctuates the action, gives the movie an experimental, almost avant-garde flavor.
The writing is sharp, clever and witty; and Edward Norton is very funny as an exasperating egotist who can only feel human on stage, but it’s Michael Keaton that really turns in a fantastic performance here, ranging from sad-sack self-hatred to manic rage, to goofy self-consciousness, and ultimately, real pathos. He’s tormented by the deep voice of the Birdman inside of his head, a super-critical alter ego who is always badgering him about his choices, and this theme eventually blossoms into an amazing sequence that sharply satirizes the mindlessness of superhero and action films. At the other end of the spectrum, the film also makes fun of the snobbishness of the theater and the ridiculous lengths that actors go in their search for motivation. The film’s central question, though, embodied in Keaton’s character, is: how does an artist fulfill his calling when he struggles every day with just believing in himself? Birdman is not a perfect film in this regard, but in sincerely attempting to ask such a question it dazzles us in the process.