Birdman stars Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts and relative unknown, Andrea Riseborough. All are excellent. All “act” in this movie. All have deep passions that are portrayed on screen. All have subtle and effecting moments. More arresting than the performances, however, is the commentary on the nature of film, theater, art and commercialism.
Edward Norton is perfect casting for the true “actor” of the bunch. The one that digs deep into every scene and comes with a string of erratic behavior to get into character. Norton plays an amplified version of himself. He’s been known to direct other actors on set and he’s stuck to more indie movies lately for a reason. His character has to be a good chunk of himself on screen and it shows in the flawless way he performs it.
Michael Keaton also plays a bit of himself. For the younger set, you might not remember that he played Batman and Beetlejuice (which they’re making a sequel to). He did, and well. Pretty much birthing the modern comic book movie. It’s still the first thing that pops up on his IMDB page. Keaton plays Riggan, an actor striving to do something meaningful and bring Raymond Carver to the stage. If you don’t know who Raymond Carver is, don’t worry. No one else in the movie cares either, other than Riggan. Riggan similarly played Birdman, a blockbuster character who made millions 10 years ago. Trying to shed Birdman, literally and figuratively, Riggan has put everything into this play.
Everything that can go wrong does. Riggan’s junkie daughter is banging Edward Norton. Every preview is rocked by some mistake. Edward Norton is uncontrollable but his huge contract will bankrupt the production if it’s broken. Riggan’s producer and lawyer is fighting off cast member’s lawsuits and trying to contain Riggan’s ego along the way. Riggan is trying to connect to a daughter that find him laughable and irrelevant. Riggan is dealing with his new lover and his ex-wife, as well as a subconscious that talks to him in the form of Birdman. There is a lesbian love scene, a boner on stage and a bunch of other things thrown into the mix. It all makes for an impressive review of theater, film, acting and actors.
If you saw some of the more fantastical elements in the trailer, don’t let this put you off. Everything is fairly comprehensible and the dream-like sequences make sense in the context of the story. The camera work of the film will also put a few people off. Because it’s shot as if it is one long shot, there are some points where you have dead space. The camera has to turn around to catch something, or swing back to the actors and it leaves gaps. With the hectic pace of the film, this didn’t bother me. It gave me a breath when needed.
The ending is a “choose your interpretation”. Like the rest of the film, it’s a comment on what an actor’s life is all about. One particular sequence encapsulates this commentary. Riggan is speaking with the Times theater critic and they viciously bite into each other about the nature of film, theater, celebrity, criticism, film as an art form and more. It’s a darling bit of back and forth that really makes you think.
That is the sum of this movie. All technique, camera work, structure and form go into critiquing film itself. That is practically the job of the indie movie is to push back on the studio system that uses bean counters instead of visionaries to make decisions. Don’t get me wrong. I love some of those bean counter movies. They’re fun and mindless. They make a lot of money and put a lot of people to work. Are they worth much in the end? Probably not.
Birdman is definitely worth a few viewings. There is so much to take in. It has a few gaps, like any movie, but if you want to know about cinema and come as close to the angst of an actor without living it, this is the movie for you
8 Forgotten Actors out of 10