THE STORY – Former cinema superhero Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is mounting an ambitious Broadway production that he hopes will breathe new life into his stagnant career. It’s risky, but he hopes that his creative gamble will prove that he’s a real artist and not just a washed-up movie star. As opening night approaches, a castmate is injured, forcing Riggan to hire an actor (Edward Norton) who is guaranteed to shake things up. Meanwhile, Riggan must deal with his girlfriend, daughter and ex-wife.
THE CAST – Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone & Naomi Watts
THE TEAM – Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Director/Writer), Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 119 Minutes
By Matt Neglia
”How did we get here?” asks Riggan Thomson’s alter-ego Birdman and that question is exactly what’s at the heart of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s ambitious one-shot filmed commentary on the state of the entertainment industry and the constant battle between art and commerce. Birdman then tells Riggan that “it smells like balls” which should tell you the film’s thesis on where things stand. While the industry and how we consume entertainment is changing on a daily basis, “Birdman’s” themes remain just as relevant as they did in 2014.
Riggan Thomson is a former movie star who gained popularity playing the fictional superhero Birdman in a series of films. Now, away from the limelight, older and wanting to reclaim not only newfound glory for himself but the respect of his peers and the industry, he mounts an ambitious Raymond Carver adaptation on Broadway which he is writing, directing and starring in. When one of his actors gets injured the week of previews, respected but difficult Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) is brought in at the last minute. While there is a boost in ticket sales due to Mike’s involvement, his self-centered attitude and desire to be truthful at all times for his method clashes with Riggan’s own vision. Not wanting to admit that his best days are behind him, Riggan has risked everything for this production and as things continue to go wrong and opening night draws closer, Riggan also confronts the personal relationships in his life with his business partner and manager (Zach Galifianakis), former drug addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone), his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), and ex-wife (Amy Ryan).
Filled with many memorable performances, “Birdman” pays respect to the world of theater by choosing to show its story in one seamlessly unbroken take (it’s really a bunch of long shots stitched together to appear as one take) which hones in on the actors’ performances, allowing them to dig deep into the material and the heightened world of emotions and drama that Iñárritu has created for them. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki does an absolutely incredible job of always keeping the camera moving but never placing it in positions that take away from the story or the characters. Some of the imagery he conjures up is truly spellbinding, as he takes us deep into one troubled actor’s mind, showing his fantasies, ailments, deteriorations, and regrets. In a career filled with remarkable work, “Birdman” marks a high point for Lubezki’s already impressive resume.
As stated before, the performances in “Birdman” all deliver, with not a single member of ensemble delivering a false note. While Michael Keaton (delivering a career-best performance) and Edward Norton may stand out the most for viewers due to their meta-casting, playing off of their real-life experiences within the industry and our perception of them, other actors such as Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan and even Zach Galifianakis (in what I think is his best dramatic work) all come together to create a cast for the ages. Everyone is given a memorable scene or moment and no one lets the opportunity pass them by. If I could tell each of the actors individually, I would quote Raymond Carver’s message to Riggan on the back of the cocktail napkin and say, “thank you for an honest performance.”
“Birdman” has a lot on its mind when it comes to the entertainment industry, actors, our value of art, legacy, social media, and more. For some, it may not always come together in such an impactful way as the film also mixes comedic and dramatic tones to appeal to as much of a mainstream audience as possible with such heady and philosophical talking points. There are those who will also (always) take issue with Iñárritu’s style, as many consider the 2-time Best Director winner (he won the following year for “The Revenant” as well) to be a bit pretentious when he doesn’t have to be. To me, “Birdman” succeeds precisely because Iñárritu was able to find a way to make art and commerce come together for this project. Having a unique shooting style, a fantastic jazzy percussion-based score (courtesy of Antonio Sánchez), a heightened perspective where we’re constantly wondering what’s real and what’s taking place inside Riggan’s mind, all the while dealing with self-worth, the value of artistic expression, love and admiration in a world that seems to only care about money and going viral, it’s pretty easy to see how “Birdman” could’ve alienated audiences. While it still manages to do that, in the words of Raymond Carver (which opens up the film), “Birdman” has earned the right to call itself beloved and to feel beloved on this earth.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – One of a kind cinematography. A terrific merger of art and commerce while also commenting on that very theme in its screenplay. A pitch perfect ensemble. A fun jazzy-percussion styled score.
THE BAD – May be seen as too pretentious or overly stated in its themes.