BIRDMAN Review

Time is not kind. Time is the one thing we can't seem to make more of and yet the only thing, when it really comes down to it, that we could ever hope to gain. Birdman is about the moments in life when it really comes down to it. When everything in life seems so fleeting, materialistic or fake and we have a second of clarity that defines what is really important to us, what makes this existence worth enduring and even why we want to exist in the first place. Birdman is a character study wrapped in social commentary about the current state of cinema as well as a love letter written in blood to the idea of legacy. There are millions of avenues one could run down when it comes to telling a story about the basic experience of being human and those moments that define who we are, who we become or who we want to be despite our actions. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (21 Grams, Babel) is interested in the moments that make up a personality and the effect or contribution that personality has on society, but he also wants to make a few other notions clear in the process. The guy hates comic book movies, clearly, or at least hates that they have become the cornerstone of the modern cinematic experience. It is hard to find fault in this opinion with as strong a case as his film makes, but then again this can all be perceived as pretentious and taking things too seriously since most comic book films have no intentions other than being escapism for the masses. As much as Birdman incorporates the world of super heroes and comic book movies into its structure to make a larger point the film is ultimately about the difference in love and admiration and how the quest to feel "special" will likely only leave you empty if you disregard those closest to you for personal gain and have no one to celebrate with when that gain puts you at the top of the mountain. Needless to say, there is a lot going on in Birdman. Both on the screen in front of you and as larger analogies Inarritu's film has a lot on its mind and is primarily so successful because it is so capable of conveying this multitude of thoughts and ideas in an entertaining and insightful manner.

Mike (Edward Norton) and Sam (Emma Stone) share a moment.
Michael Keaton is Riggan Thomson. Thomson is a washed-up actor who was once a bona fide movie star thanks to the super hero franchise, Birdman. The days of anchoring an action juggernaut and wearing a cape are twenty years behind the guy though and he feels less relevant than ever. In order to redeem himself and validate his talent to not only himself but every critic, blogger and naysayer that has ever written anything negative about him he decides to mount a comeback by adapting, producing, directing and starring in a play based on a Raymond Carver story. We are introduced to Thomson two days prior to previews beginning as we find him frustrated with the performance of his secondary lead that coincidentally is sent to the hospital after an on-stage accident. To keep his passion project afloat Thomson brings in veteran stage actor Mike Shiner (Ed Norton) who is somewhat of a diva and committed to method acting to the point the only experiences that feel genuine to him are those that take place on stage. Lesley (Naomi Watts) is a Broadway virgin set to make her stage debut who proves her worth by being the link between the play and pulling in a draw like Shiner so late in the game. Riggan was once married to Sylvia (Amy Ryan), but the couple has since been through what is referenced as a nasty divorce which may or may not have been a contributing factor to their daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), going to rehab for alcohol and drug abuse. Thomson is trying not so desperately to reconnect with Sam as he's given her the position of his assistant that keeps her busy running errands. While it is the relationship with his daughter he should likely be putting more stock in Sam is swept up by Shiner as Thomson deals with fellow co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and her potential harboring of their unborn child. Trying to hold all of this together despite budget, technical and any other kind of problems or concerns you can imagine is Thomson's long-time friend, agent and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis). Each of these individuals and the baggage they bring with them factor into the complete story of who Thomson is and what he wants to become and Inarritu along with fellow screenwriters Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo weave it all together almost seamlessly.

It is an immediate hook that pulls us into this world. It doesn't take much beyond Keaton suspended in mid air wearing only his tighty whities and listening to an inner monologue to intrigue and from that moment we are already deeply invested in Thomson's mind. It doesn't hurt that the technique used to swiftly guide us on this tour of our protagonists psyche is a continuous, unbroken shot that brings everything full circle. Many have referred to this approach as somewhat of a gimmick, but it never feels that way and I was never so distracted by it that it took me out of the story. Instead, it enhances the atmosphere completely by always keeping us involved in the going-ons backstage of a major Broadway play. I can only imagine this is nothing short of a hectic environment where no less than fifty things are always happening at once and each feel as if they are closing in on you, especially in the case of Thomson where he is playing more than one role. To this effect, the idea of not cutting anywhere in the film (though it is quite clear where liberties are taken with this technique) creates a claustrophobic feeling; one of constant pressure that Thomson and pretty much everyone else besides maybe Shiner and Sam are feeling in the days leading up to the premiere. Further, Inarritu has enlisted cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) to capture the chaotic environment in all its glory and while the constantly moving camera inherently gives the film a certain energy and pacing the pure artistic choices in where the camera lands, how long it is held on certain frames and how it incorporates the vibrant colors of the natural aesthetic into its composition are, at times, thrilling on their own. It is truly amazing the kinds of reactions that can be brought about purely from a still image that is expertly crafted. Inarritu and Lubezki have several moments throughout Birdman where they are able to conjure up something deeper in their audience that they weren't thinking of or contemplating until seeing an image. These types of visceral reactions also extend to the films strictly percussion soundtrack by Antonio Sanchez. The improvised style of the music perfectly compliments the fluidity of the camera, but more importantly the impromptu rhythm that conducts the performances from scene to scene.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) squares off with one of his actors in Birdman.
As for the performances themselves it would be lying to ones self to not see the stunt casting at play here. This is not only true of Keaton, but of Norton as well, both of whom have taken part in super hero films that contribute to what Inarritu sees as the desensitizing of the masses to real, human stories. Keaton is the original Batman and the voice inside his head in Birdman often recounts how they (he and Thomson) were the ones who started this whole thing, who put the super hero movie on the map and paved the way for the career redemption's of the Robert Downey Jr.'s. Keaton's Thomson is keen on escaping a world where his "worth is measured in weekends," and instead doing something real, something that is meaningful and lasting instead of becoming another tabloid story reduced to a single label. He seeks the prestige of being taken seriously as a well-rounded artist and human being, but for all his early career represents it is going to take more than a Broadway play to offset the impression of just how washed up he's become. He needs to wash away the label of only being remembered as the guy who played Birdman, but in the commentary on what our culture has become in terms of building up "celebrity" Thomson doesn't realistically ever have a chance of getting out from behind the mask. As soon as Keaton walks onto the stage to rehearse a scene with Norton's character for the first time it truly becomes clear how self-aware the piece is. Norton plays up the characteristics he is best known for in real life as being difficult to work with and a perfectionist when it comes to getting the most out of a single line of dialogue. The exchange between the two becomes actors acting like actors who have to be both really good and somewhat mediocre actors and to not only create, but pull off that sense so that the audience understands what is at play takes some seasoned folks who know what they are doing and in this single scene alone you realize the power Keaton and Norton have over their personas as well as the passion they feel for the craft that they hope to never allow to allude them. Within the tightly choreographed realm of what can be done here both Galifianakis and especially Stone are also excellent in making things feel as innate as possible.

My few issues with Birdman come in the form of wondering whether or not it talks about its ideas and themes so pointedly that it is simply a discussion about what Inarritu is frustrated with or if it is in fact a story that exemplifies these themes and ideas. There are of course elements of both, but despite this clearly being a story about an actor trying to both reclaim his former glory while garnering more respect than before, it is also so clearly intended to comment on the current state of the movie studio system and the way in which our lightning fast society speeds through fads and dismisses human life with ease that it rides a tough line between storytelling and strict conversation. What is reassuring about the film though is that every time it reaches a point when it might become the kind of pretentious, preachy art film it is clearly perceived to be it brings things back down to earth, to the actuality of day to day, moment to moment life rather than living in the highlights a movie usually brings us. I was also a bit concerned the ending was telegraphed a little too early and a little too obviously, but even this is handled in an effective way to create a bigger metaphor and one that still reinforces the main idea of the film and what seems to be Inarritu's basic principal overall: to be present in your own life with the short time you are given.