by Jason Koenigsberg
Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Amy Ryan
A has-been actor who gained fame playing a beloved superhero faces difficult family and professional problems as he struggles to remain relevant and maintain his dignity as a respectable thespian in Birdman, the new film directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams).
The story centers on Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) a former Hollywood big name star trying to mount his comeback as a serious actor in the most respectable acting art form left today, the Broadway Stage. The play hits some serious roadblocks with casting changes, actor’s egos clashing and one method actor (Edward Norton) partially destroying the set in fit of rage, possibly in character or possibly just being a jerk. Our main character also has to deal with his daughter (Emma Stone) being on the set thus being reminded of his own shortcomings as a father, a young actress (Andrea Riseborough) who says she is pregnant with his baby, his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and mother of his twenty-something year old daughter coming to New York City to visit reminding him of his failures as a husband, and a critic (Lindsay Duncan) who cannot wait to write a scathing review of his play since she does not consider him a real actor, only a celebrity filling up a theater with nothing but trash and his own self-importance.
With all those forces closing in on our main character his greatest conflict is within himself, battling his inner demon, the superhero/movie star that he once was. Putting self-destructive thoughts into his mind he has to fight his alter ego and stay in touch with reality.
This film is very unconventional with the way that it blends surreal elements with reality. The music is all drums in between scenes as actors are running around the St. James Theater and parts of Mid-town Manhattan. It adds to the very authentic feel, as does the actual filming on location especially in a scene where Keaton has to run outside in his underwear through Times Square. I do not want to spoil how or why he has to parade through the busiest block of the city like that, but the moment captures New York City perfectly.
The two highlights of this film are the acting and the directing. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu directs this film like Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) with no clear edits. It all feels like one long take until the final scene. The camera is never still and moving the entire time more than in a Robert Altman or Martin Scorsese picture. This style of directing is a little bit jarring and at some moments it feels like the director is simply showing off his stealth camera maneuvering and takes the audience out of the picture trying to figure out how he did it. Other times it works beautifully as he seamlessly brings the audience to and from important moments in the narrative. The direction is meant to stand out and this is one of the most intensely directed and edited films of the year.
It’s unconventional visual style works most of the time and it had to be a very difficult challenge for its actors. Which brings me to the next highlight of Birdman, the acting. Everyone here is excellent from Lindsay Duncan as the cynical critic to Emma Stone as his troubled daughter. Zach Galifianakis I found to be particularly exceptional as Riggan Thomson’s assistant and best friend showing his real acting ability and playing a role that the late Philip Seymour Hoffman could have done, yet he probably would not have been any better than Mr. Galifianakis.
However the real reason people should see this movie is for Michael Keaton in a role that was tailored for him and he knocks it out of the park. Keaton is never too sympathetic yet he is never a complete scoundrel as Riggan Thomson. In a subtle and dark way you can never tell if he is really on the edge or if he is grounded in reality and knows the difference between the real world and his own mind. He brings an element of darkness to the role and also because of his career it makes it impossible to imagine any other actor running around the theater as Riggan Thompson. It is a rare gift indeed where you see a movie and realize that no other actor in the world could have played a character other than the person you are watching on screen. The audience sees the fatigue on his face, in his hairline and through his delivery of the script. This is a very brave and emotional performance.
25 years ago a lot of actors could have played Batman, but in 2014 only Michael Keaton could have played Birdman.