CINEMA RELEASE: BIRDMAN (OR THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)
Release date: 15th January 2015
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Cast: Michael Keaton, Zack Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Amy Ryan, Andrea Riseborough, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts
Classification: MA15+ (Strong Coarse Language)
Review by Peter Gray
Usually associating himself with gritty dramas like ’21 Grams’ or ‘Babel’, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu explores the human condition from a different angle in ‘Birdman’, not only exploring one man’s decaying sense of self, but skewering the entertainment industry in the process, commenting on Hollywood, New York’s Broadway, narcissistic actors, critics, and addiction – among other things.
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a once-popular actor yearning to be taken seriously in an industry that makes it stars as quickly as it breaks them. Best known for a series of comic-book action movies called ‘Birdman’, Thomson declined appearing in the film’s third sequel – against the better judgement of the voice that lurks in the depths of his mind – to no career avail. Staging his comeback, Thomson has adapted Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” for the Broadway stage, only for it too to underwhelm during the rehearsal phase. One of his leads (Jeremy Shamos) is an over-acting fool; another (Andrea Riseborough) may be pregnant with his child. As he struggles with his insecurity as a performer, his duties as a father are equally as inadequate as proof through his strained relationship with daughter Sam (Emma Stone), a recovering drug addict who doubles as his assistant. Riggan’s self-worth is questioned even further with the arrival of Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a “name-recognition” actor whose volatile behaviour and inflated ego only alienate Riggan more from his theatrical vision.
Much has been said about the way Inarritu has staged ‘Birdman’ with it slyly being presented as one continuous take (there are cuts though, as sneakily hidden as they are), and though it’s easy to put this down as a gimmick, the director, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, has created such a visually stunning piece that you don’t even consciously recognise the continuous movement of the camera, the film instead intoxicating its audience with dazzling fluidity through the St. James Theatre, where most of the action takes place. There’s more to ‘Birdman’ than just surface-level splendour though with its attack on the industry particularly on-the-nose, with the franchise fascination, the pretentiousness of both star and critic, and the ease at disposing once-loved talent all laid bare. An understanding of the industry proves a benefit when enjoying ‘Birdman’s battering of Hollywood, but the underlying theme of redemption and remorse allow the film to be more easily accessible.
‘Birdman’ is an experience, to say the least, one that can’t be easily, or even accurately, described, and it goes without saying that its main source of life is through its impeccable cast. Michael Keaton is the perfect embodiment of Riggan, his vanity-free performance giving way for the character’s own anxiety and weaknesses to come alive. His supporting cast is just as stellar with Edward Norton particularly memorable as a self-important actor who may not be as vile as he initially appears; Zack Galifianakis downplays his usual oafish routine to play it straight as Riggan’s constantly distraught friend and lawyer; and Emma Stone is outstanding as the resentful daughter, with the actress’s oversized eyes never appearing more haunting or inviting as they do here. Andrea Riseborough and Amy Ryan aren’t quite as detailed in their roles as Riggan’s on/off lover and ex-wife respectively, though both still deliver, but Naomi Watts sneaks in a series of beautiful, tender moments as a hopeful actress whose genuine joy at earning a spot on Broadway is a welcome contrast to Riggan’s jaded attitude.
I found ‘Birdman’ to be a brilliant piece of art, an operatic analysis on the progression of imagination and the roadblocks we face in our own lives. It’s the kind of film that makes going to the movies a genuinely exciting experience and one that I hope others will enjoy, or at least appreciate.
My rating: 5/5