You won’t see a more ambitious film than Birdman this year. I didn’t realize director Alejandro González Iñárritu had this in him. He directed the Oscar-nominated Babel and 21 Grams. Both great films, but this is a completely different approach to filmmaking he’s done here. He is absolutely channeling Paul Thomas Anderson‘s films, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, with its aggressive musical score that acts as another character in the film. Both with an orchestra (which was featured in Magnolia) and chaotic percussion (which stood out in Punch-Drunk Love). Birdman also features really long shots that move all around a building, just like Anderson’s work. In fact, Birdman presents itself as one continuous shot. It’s not, but it’s amazing watching the film making it seem like it is.
The film is very theatrical, which makes sense, because it’s all about putting on a play. Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, an actor who was famous for playing the superhero Birdman in the early 1990s, who is now struggling to remain relevant. Sound familiar? Yeah, the comparison are obvious. He’s decided to adapt a novel for the stage, direct and star in it. He’s putting everything he has into it, both financially and emotionally, so it’s gotta work. Oh, and he can also move things with his mind. Maybe. And his Birdman character talks to him in his head. I think.
So there’s a lot going on in Birdman as the camera whisks us through the backstage area of the playhouse. Keaton is the lead here, but for the first 2 acts, it’s really the supporting characters who stand out. Edward Norton gives his most electrifying performance since his Oscar-nominated debut in Primal Fear. In a career of great work, that’s really saying something. He jumps off the screen with magnificent energy. He’s funny, frustrating, nutty, and unpredictable as the last minute addition to the cast who will help sell tickets. He deserves another Oscar nom for this.
Reuniting with her 21 Grams director, Naomi Watts is a ton of fun as an actress making her Broadway debut. I wanted more of her throughout the film. Emma Stone plays Riggan’s daughter, who recently got out of rehab, and begrudgingly acts as her Dad’s assistant. Emma gets a wallop of a monologue where she tells her Dad off that might get Oscar’s attention as well.
Also in the cast is Amy Ryan, a wonderful Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, and Nurse Jackie‘s Merritt Wever. It might prove to be the best ensemble of the year. The actors help take the film beyond being just a gimmick and creating memorable moments throughout.
Unfortunately, in the third act, all the other characters take a backseat for Keaton’s character. I wish they were more prominent featured as the film reaches its conclusion. Not being very present in the third act might cost Norton the supporting Actor Oscar, but it might help Keaton win the lead.
Keaton is outstanding as a washed-up actor just barely holding it together. It’s a bold, brave performance that would have been an easy punchline if the film had not worked. It does, and Keaton deserves the accolades.
Birdman has an interesting “aftertaste” in that I was enthralled watching the film, but after leaving the theatre, I started to see its faults. It almost ends on a great note on the stage, but then it has a tacked-on ambiguous scene that feels repetitive and unnecessary. Also, the setup of the film seems to suggest that we are almost inside Riggan’s head, so when the camera leaves him and has a scene without him, the structure of the film becomes flimsy.
That being said, Birdman absolutely deserves to be seen for its ambition, its technical wonder, and fantastic performances. You won’t forget this film anytime soon.