Birdman (Alejandro Inarritu, 2014) Birdman is a big swinging dick bit of show-off filmmaking for everyone involved in the production. Thankfully, the final result is wildly entertaining and just plain weird enough to justify all of the grandstanding. Enough so that the film has unexpectedly ended up being an Oscar frontrunner in time for it’s Blu-ray release. This weirdo little experiment has become a major film and all of the grandstanding has served it well as prestige has gotten slathered all over it. No one member of the show-off team succeeds more than Michael Keaton though, for whom the film isn’t just a long overdue comeback, but likely the most challenging and downright nutty role that he’ll ever play.
Keaton stars as a flailing middle age actor on the perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown with more than a few autobiographical connections. The character was famous in the 90s for portraying a popular superhero known as Birdman, but since leaving that role he’s found it difficult to land work, never mind getting recognized for his talents. The film takes place over a few tense days in which he attempts to mount a Broadway production of a Raymond Carver story as star/director in the hopes that it will finally establish him as a serious artist. Beyond the intense personal struggle wrapped up in the production keeping him on edge, Keaton also has a variety of other characters contributing to his potential nervous breakdown. He’s got a supportive, yet realistic best friend (Zach Galifianakis) reminding him of impending bankruptcy, a collection of neurotic actors led by a self-destructive and combative Edward Norton, and a disapproving daughter (Emma Stone) fresh from rehab working as his assistant. To top it all off, Keaton has also started hearing the voice of Birdman in his head and seems to think he’s developing psychic powers. So, quite a bit to contend with to say the least.
As a screenplay, Birdman probably has a few too many balls in its juggling act. The film comes from writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) whose sense of subtlety is akin to a New Years Eve parade populated by a gang of naked raging alcoholics on speed. Along with three other credited writers, Inarritu attempts to make Birdman a visceral depiction of a nervous breakdown, a satire of contemporary show business, an exploration self-destructive artistic impulses, a depiction of neglectful parenting, a comment on narcissistic ignorance, a surrealistic fantasy, a somewhat realistic backstage drama, a personal tragedy, a goofy comedy, and a few other things all at once. At best, the movie is a barrage of provocative ideas and hilarious images colliding into an explosion of entertainment. At worst, it’s a movie that so desperately wants the audience to think, feel, and react that viewers will feel like they are being physically assaulted by the filmmaker. Thankfully, the movie succeeds far more often than not and offers such a wave of sensory overload at any given moment that it’s hard to stand back and notice the failings until the rush is over. At the very least, Inarritu is in a playful mode as a filmmaker for the first time since his debut and the lack of relentless misery porn makes it all much easier to swallow.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that he also assembled one hell of a cast to bring everything together. At the center is of course Michael Keaton, on screen for almost every second of the running time and never given a moment to relax. From even the most slapsticky comedy origins of his career, Keaton has been a performer who thrives on manic energy (let’s not forget that his small supporting role in Beetlejuice exploded off the screen with such intensity that they renamed the movie after him). In Birdman, he’s got a role that demands he be revved up and out of control pretty much from frame one and Keaton gamely starts his energy level at 10 and then finds a few more degrees to fly off the scale without losing credibility. He’s allowed to play for laughs as only he can, while also mining the pit of his darkest emotions, mocking his own career, and even engaging in a little fantasy via his Birdman hallucinations. It’s a role that feels custom designed for Keaton and one so suited to show off his strengths that it’s impossible to imagine he’ll ever be better. The film is worth seeing for Keaton’s performance alone and hopefully, it’ll spark off the comeback his character desperately desires in real life.
Ed Norton also gently pokes fun at his demanding and slightly pretentious reputation in his role and delivers one of his most purely enjoyable performances in years (the irony of the once Incredible Hulk spewing out venomous monologues deriding the superhero obsessed film industry clearly wasn’t lost on Inarritu or Norton). Those two parts are so specifically geared to the actors’ strengths and biography that you can’t help but wonder if the damaged daughter role was intended for a Lindsay Lohan type, but regardless it’s best it fell into Stone’s lap since she charms, smarms, and whines it up with ease. Around the edges folks like Galifianakis (who has much stronger acting chops than The Hangover movies might suggest) and Naomi Watts steal a few scenes here and there. No one in the cast drops the ball for a second and that’s lucky since the nature of the production was such a technical challenge above all else.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention that Inarritu and his genius cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (fresh off an Oscar for Gravity) decided to shoot the entire movie to appear as though it takes place in one continuous take (minus an epilogue). If you’re used to spotting the mechanics of such effects, it’s obvious where the cuts are hidden, yet that’s beside the point. Aside from being technically audacious, the roving single-take-style also builds up a manic energy and intensity that suits the bubble-bursting plot perfectly. Even though the film is comprised primarily of dialogue scenes, there’s not a moment that doesn’t feel suspenseful or visually overwhelming. Unfortunately the technique prevented trimming certain scenes and monologues in the editing room that could have helped aid narrative flow and chop out a few overly didactic or melodramatic sequences. That’s a shame since Birdman is undeniably flawed in ways that could have been avoided, yet at the same time it’s hard to complain too much about such a weird, wild, wacky, wonderful, experimental, and exhilarating (if exhausting) movie.
The visual rush of Birdman suits a Blu-ray release pretty damn well. The camera pyrotechnics (both subtle and dramatic) pop in HD perfectly. You wouldn’t want to watch the movie in anything other than the best presentation possible and that’s exactly what this disc provides. It’s a showpiece Blu visually with a few speaker-rattling highlights on soundtrack to workout an entire home theater system. It’s pretty much inevitable that this is going to be an Oscar-winner for cinematography and if nothing else the Blu-ray proves why any other option would be a ludicrous mistake. The special feature section is limited to three featurettes, but thankfully they’re all strong. First up is a 30-minute documentary about the film’s production that rushes through details slightly, but if nothing else proves just how remarkably elaborate this whole cinematic stunt was. The focus is on the single take technique and all of the physical, technical, and acting challenges involved. The doc is a fascinating rush to watch for nerds in love with such cinematic daring-do. Next up is a more loose and conversational featurette with Keaton and Inarritu that digs more into the meaning and themes of the film than the technique. It’s a loose, funny, and confessional little chat that proves how personal this project was for the two strange old men at the center. Finally, the disc wraps up with a nice collection of on-set photographs from the movie’s genius cinematographer.
Birdman is one hell of a cinematic rush and a long overdue dream come true for anyone who has missed Michael Keaton. There’s certainly no other movie like Birdman kicking around this year and love it or hate it, the film demands to be seen. In my mind, it’s easily one of the best movies of the year. In your mind, it could be one of the worst. Either way, it’s safe to say you won’t forget it. All of the big talents involved dropped trou and showed off way too much for that.