Birdman provides a thought-provoking and inventive exploration of artistry, family, and the difference between power, popularity, and prestige.
In Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Michael Keaton plays former blockbuster movie star Riggan Thomson – remembered best for portraying comic book hero Birdman on the big screen (back in the 1990s). Fast forward two decades and Thomson is no longer a hot Hollywood commodity. Broke, separated from his wife (Amy Ryan), estranged from his rebellious daughter (Emma Stone), and forgotten by his once adoring fans, Thomson sets out to prove that he’s not just a washed up hack – opting to write, direct, and star in a Broadway show based on the Raymond Carver story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”.
However, when Thomson is unhappy with the actor cast as Nick in the production (Jeremy Shamos), he makes a last minute replacement – auditioning critically acclaimed stage performer Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) to take over the part. Impressed by Shiner’s sincerity (and method acting approach), Thomson hires the quirky thespian less than 24 hours prior to the first preview performance of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. However, when Shiner makes a scene during his first public rehearsal, Thomson is thrown into a spiral of self-doubt and fear – second-guessing his own talent, personal relationships, career choices, and begging the question: will audiences even be willing to love him again?
Birdman was written and directed by Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu – known to American audiences for 21 Grams and Babel. Despite marketing for the film, that positions it as a black comedy riff on current comic book movie trends, Birdman is much more in keeping with Iñárritu’s previous works – an art house exploration of imperfect people struggling to navigate our (often) cruel and fickle world. To that end, Birdman is a resounding success with great performances, mesmerizing cinematography, and thought-provoking thematic threads that play on both Carver’s story and pop culture to moving effect. That said, those anticipating a heavy dose of Keaton with a beak and armored wings could be underwhelmed, and feel a bit misled, by the amount of Birman in the actual film.
As indicated, while the Birdman trailers and print materials have positioned Iñárritu’s latest movie as counter-programming to Marvel and DC’s burgeoning cinematic universes, not to mention a meta-commentary on Keaton’s own history in the Batsuit, the actual story is focused on more personal matters: troubled relationships, artistic integrity, Broadway versus Hollywood, and the true definition of love. Birdman is about a father, husband, lover, business partner, and actor – not a superhero. Instead of an active plot point, Birdman is a shadowy figure from Thomson’s past – one that, above all else, haunts him (as a voice to his self-loathing). He’s a shoulder devil, rarely seen but a gripping source of temptation and self-destruction when the actor is vulnerable. The interplay between Thomson and Birdman charts a journey of risk and rejection – along with the pitfalls that accompany personal ambition and sincere attempts at artistry.
Iñárritu doesn’t just toy with these ideas in premise and dialogue alone. The filmmaker enlisted the help of academy award-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) to ensure that the entire production, like its protagonist, took risks. Together Iñárritu and Lubezki make ambitious use of a Broadway theater stage – employing every square inch of the building to give the impression that most of Birdman was filmed in one continuous take (albeit with a few time lapse shots). While there are some noticeable breaks, the result is still a significant achievement, one that cinephiles will be dissecting for years to come – as the interconnectivity also highlights great performances and heightens emotional tension.
Still, this isn’t to say that the film tricks audiences into investing in the Birdman characters with a flashy gimmick. The main cast is incredibly strong and every single member receives a moment (or more) to shine. Keaton leads the ensemble with a performance that, without question, is made all the more interesting given his own experience as a former A-list superhero actor. Though, awareness of his career only adds intriguing subtext – because Keaton’s sincerity and talent are the true foundation for his memorable (and outright captivating) turn as Thomson. The actor has enjoyed a long career, and several iconic roles, but Birdman features some of his most powerful and persuading work to date.
Similarly, fellow superhero movie alums Edward Norton (The Incredible Hulk) and Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man) are both afforded rich and complex characters to unpack. In a standard story of competing egos, Norton’s Mike Shiner would be a shallow and vapid caricature – included to butt heads with the story’s underdog lead. However, Norton and Iñárritu portray Shiner as a fractured sage – an accomplished stage actor who is more comfortable embodying characters than he is in his own skin. The role is an especially fun departure for Norton – supplying the actor with some genuinely brazen scenes and a thoughtful platform to reflect on his own craft. Sam isn’t as much of a stretch for Stone but the actress succeeds in playing-off a supporting cast of Hollywood veterans and absolutely shines in an especially biting monologue – performed in a single take.
Zach Galifianakis, Lindsay Duncan, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, and Naomi Watts are also prominently featured. Each one provides a quality performance and sharp commentary on key themes in the film (and Carver short story) – most notably by reflecting different aspirations for acceptance and love. Nevertheless, while the first two acts of the film dedicate a significant amount of time to Birdman‘s side characters, by the third act most of the players are little more than window dressing – as Thomson becomes firmly rooted in the spotlight. To that end, the cast serves its primary function but a few interesting storylines are left somewhat unresolved – which might irk moviegoers who were intrigued by the director’s initial world-building.
Iñárritu has produced an arresting tale of love and art in a time of viral videos and celebrity gossip columns but, in spite of the film’s achievements, Birdman is not going to be for everyone. Potential viewers who are hoping for a lighthearted riff on comic book movie culture – where Keaton suits up (again) for action will probably be surprised, and possibly put-off by Iñárritu’s contemplative and layered black dramedy. Nevertheless, those open to the film’s experimental style will find Birdman provides a thought-provoking and inventive exploration of artistry, family, the difference between power, popularity, and prestige – not to mention what we talk about when we talk about love.
Birdman runs 119 minutes and is Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence. Now playing in theaters.
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Confused about the ending? Read our Birdman Ending Explained post.
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