Birdman is so visually audacious you almost lose focus on its engrossing performances, cutting sense of humor and ambitious breadth. It is Rope on meth, tracking, almost hounding, with very few cuts, our tortured protagonist (Michael Keaton) in, through and around Broadway’s St. James Theater as he seeks to revive an acting career defined by his iconic role as a movie superhero. His fortune and name are on the line, and he is beset on all sides by family (fresh out of rehab daughter Emma Stone, ex-wife Amy Ryan), his jittery manager (Zack Galifianakis), his needy female co-stars (Andrea Riseborough, Naomi Watts), his antagonistic male co-star (Edward Norton) and a vicious and even more antagonistic New York Times reviewer (Lindsey Duncan).
One other character gives him some trouble as well. His alter ego, who at first is a voice in his head but soon appears in person, telling him that all this stage acting bullshit is just that, he needs to get his ass back in a Birdman movie, and he must “shave off that pathetic goatee. Get some surgery. Sixty’s the new thirty, motherfucker!”
Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu collaborated with three others on the play-within-a-play script, which is a satirical series of verbal jousts on the topics of sex, relationships, acting, the stage versus Hollywood, machismo, art versus commerce and the impact of social media. The clashes between Keaton and Norton (sell-out v. artiste’) and Keaton and Duncan (the sell-out virus stinking up the hallowed stages of Broadway v. the Lord Protector of those stages) are particularly sharp, but the entire screenplay is chock full of gems. My favorite is Keaton explain how he is holding up under the strain: “”I’m broke, I’m not sleeping and this play keeps hitting me in the balls with a tiny little hammer.”
The frenetic, adrenaline rush style of the film heightens the tension (the cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubetzki, was the mastermind behind the dizzying tracking shot in Children of Men). The manic shooting makes the performances all the more impressive. Keaton is superb. His early trademark (ironically, before he became Batman) was a fevered, riffing style of acting, which could be spellbinding or just exhausting. Older and more world-weary, Keaton internalizes his frenzy, struggling to bottle it in just as he struggles to keep Birdman at bay. It’s a riveting turn. Everyone else is excellent, and Norton deserves special mention. As an actor with a history of being temperamental, Norton’s performance as a condescending, difficult, self-loathing actor is canny and knowing. He damn near steals the film, which again, mirrors what is going on in the story.
Gonzalez Inarritu also gives the actors a great deal of space. In Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson filmed a solid chunk of a drug deal going bad solely on the face of Mark Wahlberg. The effect was powerful because in Wahlberg’s eyes, the audience could register the disaster unfolding before him. Whenever I think of that classic film, I first remember that scene. Of all the memorable parts of Birdman, there is a scene when Stone lashes out at her father, purposefully trying to hurt him. In one of the few times the camera isn’t moving, Gonzalez Inarritu holds on Stone’s face as she delivers the cut and then as she sees its effect. It’s a captivating moment in a film full of them.
Thus far, the best film I’ve seen all year.