Stars: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough
Director: Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu
Genre: Black Comedy
From the opening shot, where Michael Keaton's character, Riggan, is shown levitating off the ground in his skivvies, we are put on notice that we're in for something out of the ordinary with Birdman. "Extraordinary" would be a more fitting adjective for this tour-de-force of inventiveness, imagination and creativity from director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, who gave us, among other fine efforts, the 2006 masterpiece, Babel.
If you've absorbed any of the works of Isabelle Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marques, then you're familiar with the literary style of magic realism. That is a lot of what's at play here, and if you keep that in mind, you won't be sitting there, like some undoubtedly will, muttering this is all too far out for me!
Riggan is a has-been film star who, like Keaton himself, walked away from Hollywood and a lucrative career playing the superhero Birdman. Now, in the autumn of his years, he's looking to redeem himself by adapting a Raymond Carver story and producing it for the Broadway stage. It's make or break time, and everything is on the line. But he has an eccentric and temperamental actor in Mike (Edward Norton), who could potentially sabotage the play. He has a lover (Andrea Riseborough), who says she's pregnant and springs the news on him in what can be the worst moment in a man's life when he's expected to be ecstatic but can't quite pull it off. He has a daughter (Emma Stone), who is just out of rehab and trying to stay clean, with mixed results. And his alter-ego, Birdman, speaks to him in a James Earl Jones voice--like the angel and the devil atop opposite shoulders--driving him crazy. Is Riggan schizophrenic, or does he really possess the super-human powers of being able to move objects with his mind, and the ability to fly? Answers remain up in the air, as we gaze at them in jaw-dropping wonder.
Birdman soars in so many ways--from the cinematography to the amazing cast--who are playing way above their heads, in performances that should earn Norton and Keaton, at least, some Oscar nods.
There is one scene where Riggan is having a contentious conversation with a prominent critic (Lindsay Duncan) who has the power to destroy his play inside her poison pen. He gives it to her with both barrels in an exchange that will no doubt cause some film reviewers in the audience to squirm in their seats. It's as if the movie is flipping the bird (pardon the pun) in a preemptive strike at all those who might be so myopic as to allow the brilliance of this film to pass over their heads.
I've never given a rating any higher than an "A" because I don't believe there have been any perfect films (Last Tango In Paris notwithstanding). But if I were tempted to award an A+ rating, Birdman would be the one to receive it.
I'm with the other mutterers here. Not so much because this movie is "too far out." I just don't like untidy endings where I'm left feeling confused and unsatisfied. Whether Riggan, ably portrayed by Michael Keaton (who has very wide shoulders, by the way), is mentally unbalanced, or has simply morphed into the larger-than-life character he's played on screen, is something the viewer has to decide. When I go to a movie, I prefer that the screenwriters decide those details for me.
I will say that when Birdman started, I absolutely loved the backstage insanity, the pretensions of Broadway versus Hollywood, the hyperactivity that pervades this particular milieu. And Edward Norton's performance is one of his best. Absolutely brilliant. There's a lot going on in this film. A little too much for my taste. And by the end, I was exhausted. Still, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention another stellar acting turn by Emma Stone -- where she reams out her dad (Keaton) for being such a shitty parent. Last but not least, the drum-ridden score by Antonio Sanchez was suitably dramatic and extremely original.
Having said all this, I still disliked this film. A lot. As pretentious as Norton's character is, I think Birdman is one of those films that movie snobs will feel compelled to praise. Whereas the average movie goer – like me – will either mutter, or pretend to like it so as not to appear cinematically unsophisticated.