“Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.”
That line, said by Edward Norton during a heated exchange with Michael Keaton tells you all you need to know about Birdman. This is, essentially, a super-hero movie that despises super-hero movies and the trappings that go along with them.
Twenty-Five years ago Michael Keaton lit up the screen as The Dark Knight in Tim Burton’s Batman, a role that went on to define his career whether he liked it or not. Fast-forward to 2014 and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and Keaton is playing a fictionalized version of himself, trying to right the damage done by playing such a famous character. Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, a once blockbuster-headlining superstar with one last chance at legitimacy as an actor. The man has sunk every last penny into a Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and as the film starts, is at his wit’s end dealing with bad actors, a problematic daughter and oh yeah, the constant heckling from Birdman, the voice inside Riggan’s head.
Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director of Birdman, is a tough nut to crack. He’s previously shown a great ability to tell a globe-spanning tale of interconnected misery with his 2006 opus Babel. Here the misery and redemption is not globe-spanning but instead confined to a two block radius around the storied St. James Theatre in New York City. Iñárritu shows that he has an ear for great dialogue and is able to get some arresting performances from his cast. This is in thanks to some heartbreaking monologues where the actors/characters are able to bare their souls. Various subjects such as ego and obsession are touched upon with a grace (some would say heavy handedness), that approaches an ethereal quality that isn’t unwelcome in the least. This is a director who will constantly surprise you with the stories he chooses to tell.
Just so I don’t come off like a broken record from here on out, everyone in the cast is doing career best work. Keaton in particular is masterful as the on-the-cusp of redemption Riggan Thompson. He’s proven himself as a fine actor before in films like the underrated Game 6 and Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, but here he has upped his game into the stratosphere, giving his best performance yet. Filled with conviction and an indelible sadness, his is one of the towering performances of a year filled with great ones. The supporting cast is also one of the strongest you’ll see in theaters in 2014 as well. Emma Stone deserves particular praise for her portrayal of Riggan’s daughter, a fresh out of rehab twenty-something hiding a world of anguish behind her eyes. She’s truly given the opportunity to shine in Birdman, giving one of the strongest performances in the film outside of Keaton. Pathos that was only teased elsewhere in previous roles really comes to the fore.
The rest of the cast is aces as well, from Zach Galifianakas turning in a fine dramatic performance to Naomi Watts dazzling as always. Her character in particular has some strong moments and she hasn’t been this heartbreaking since 2001’s Mulholland Drive. The real star of the supporting cast, when it comes right down to it, has got to be Edward Norton. Playing a Broadway actor who is so full of himself he can be downright painful, Norton plays the role he was born to play: Himself. Few actors would have the courage to play an exaggerated version of themselves, especially when the character is so vile and Norton deserves some respect for even going through with it.
On a technical level Birdman is a masterclass. From the pounding drum score to the seamless editing, it’s a marvel. Emmanuel Lubezki is having an absolute field day here with his camera. Filmed and edited to resemble one continuous shot, the cinematography can be jarring at first but settles into a steady rhythm before long. Taking his sweeping camerawork he employed and won an Oscar for in Gravity and using it in the enclosed space of a Broadway theater is an inspired choice. Lubezki is a cinematographer with an eye for beauty in even the ugliest situations as evidenced by his previous work with directors Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life) and Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) and his work here reaches the same great heights as before.
An existential super-hero film if anything else, Birdman is one of the best films of the year. A great behind the scenes look into the world of Broadway and the way super-hero films can ruin the lives of those who star in them, this is a film that should be seen by anyone with even a passing interest in strange, unique stories. Breathtaking from start to finish and a truly surreal experience, Birdman is one of a kind and a high point for the Fall movie season.