WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
An ageing actor who, in his heyday, played a beloved silver screen superhero named Birdman tries to reclaim his reputation by throwing everything he has into a theatrical adaptation of a short story by the illustrious literary-writer Raymond Carver. Along the way, he has to deal with his semi-estranged daughter, impossible actors, vicious critics and, most debilitating of all, his own doubts and insecurities that may or may not be presenting themselves as his long-buried Birdman persona – superpowers and all.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Birdman is one of those films that is surprisingly difficult to talk about. Not because of any major plot twists or some such narrative surprises (though it certainly has its share of those) and certainly not because it's so “arty” that it becomes impossible to discuss in any sort of concrete way (it's “arty”, sure, but in a way that is personal rather than pretentious) but because there's so much to it and so much that is left up to the viewer's own interpretation that it feels all but impossible to do it justice in anything other than a major doctoral thesis.
Birdman is a film that will undoubtedly resonate most strongly with those who are either involved in creative pursuits or, at least, have strong interests in the same, but as it deals with everything from familial relationships to existential questions of what we're doing here, whether we make an impact on the world around us and whether anyone has any real hope of staying “relevant” as they slip into old- and middle-age, it undoubtedly has something to say to most audiences. There's so much in here, in fact, that it's all but impossible to take it all in in a single viewing and the meaning of the film will not just vary from audience member to audience member but will almost definitely evolve as you yourself do.
If there is one constant about Birdman though, it's that no matter what you may or may not subjectively take away from it, it will undoubtedly always remain a brilliant piece of filmmaking.
Aejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Amores Perros, Babel) has long been both a highly acclaimed, challenging and often maddening writer/ director who has not only caused huge swathes of otherwise intelligent, educated people to pronounce “Babel” as the thing that a brook does and not as in the Tower of – but has also helped to spearhead the great “Mexican Invasion” that has been enriching cinema immeasurably for over a decade now. Birdman is clearly the work of a filmmaker at the height of his powers but it's also clearly something of a departure for Inarritu, as he channels such illustrious American (and occasionally British) visionaries as Alfred Hitchcock and Charlie Kaufman, while moving away from the convoluted plotting of some of his more controversial pieces.
Filmed to look like it was shot in a single take (instead it's “merely” a bunch of very long takes edited together), Birdman is confined mostly to a single theatre and a small cast but always feels as ambitious as it is intimate. And, between its flights of fancy – or at least apparent flights of fancy – and its unsettling, percussion-heavy score, it always has a touch of the otherworldly to go with the mundane reality of putting on even a fairly humble stage production. It's simply an exquisitely put together piece of work where Inarritu's ambitions finally seem to be matched by his accomplishments.
All this said though, if there is one reason to see the film, it must surely be Michael Keaton. It's impossible to overstate Inarritu's directorial prowess and the supporting cast, including such major talents as Emma Stone, Edward Norton and Zach Galifianakis in an atypically and surprisingly effective serious role, are uniformly brilliant but the real pleasure of the film – the thing that takes it from something admirable to something kind of wonderful - is the career best performance from an actor who has been neglected, overlooked or just plain missing for far too long.
Keaton has always struck that perfect balance between off-kilter quirk and charming but for all his many classic roles (Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice!) that balance has never been more prominent than it is here. He is in very nearly every single frame of the film, playing a character that is the very definition of complicated, being asked to deliver a couple of dozen pages of script in a single take and, on occasion, taking a brisk walk through Times Square wearing nothing more than his tighty whities. And, while the character he plays clearly has a lot of superficial similarities with Keaton's own professional career, he is quick to stress that he has nonetheless never played a character more different from himself. It's a tour de force of a performance and it's impossible to believe that he won't be picking up dozens of “best actor” awards in this latest, protracted awards season. And rightly so.
As is typical of these highly ambitious, often challenging “art films”, Birdman most probably isn't for everyone but if you're looking for something that is as different as it is audacious as it is really, genuinely, bloody good, you owe it to yourself to see Birdman. If not, just check it out for Michael Keaton's lead performance – especially if you happen to be of that age where you pretty much grew up on his '80s and early '90s classics. It's simply an incredible piece of work.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE