Bonkers, brilliantly acted, funny, completely absorbing plus other labels.
by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)
For most of the latter part of last year, I had to put up with only being able to hear about and read other reviews of Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). You see, in the UK, sometimes we get films much later than in the US, excluding press/festival screenings and so on. Most of the time, that doesn’t bother me so much. But when a film like Birdman comes around, and every other review is declaring it one of the best of 2014, with as interesting a premise as it has, then that kind of sucks.
Come the 1st of January 2015, a little worse for wear with an aching hangover, I began my plans to find a cinema near me showing this existential comedy. And I did, on Friday 2nd. Since which time I have been processing, re-thinking and trying my damned hardest to work out exactly what I think of Birdman beyond simply “that was bloody brilliant.” I will endeavor to describe it – and my feelings towards it – as best I can.
It’s directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, a critically acclaimed Mexican filmmaker who is arguably best known for his first feature film, the award winning, compelling, intelligent Amores Perros. Although, virtually all of his films are just as highly regarded by the majority of people. Biutiful (starring Javier Bardem), 21 Grams and Babel too were all very well received upon release and have each been nominated for and won many different prestigious awards. It’s fair to say then than Iñárritu had a fair bit of pressure on his shoulders to produce yet another groundbreaking drama of as equally high quality.
In which case, surprising as it is, his response to this weight of expectation was to produce what is his effectively first foray into the comedy genre. In saying that, it’s not what you might describe as a typical, gag-a-minute, Airplane!-esque joke-reel. Straying away from conventions, as he did so stunningly with Amores Perros, it’s… a bit odd. Bloody brilliant. But odd.
Unlike the title probably suggests to anybody unfamiliar with exactly what Birdman is, it’s actually not a superhero film at all. It’s about an aging actor, played by Michael Keaton in a career-best performance, who used to be in a trilogy of blockbuster superhero films 20 years ago, playing the character Birdman. Obviously considering Keaton’s rise to fame playing the caped crusader Batman in Tim Burton’s series of films, it’s probably the most apt piece of casting you’re likely to see for, oh, I don’t know.. all of 10 minutes? Right up until Ed Norton appears as the most arrogant actor known to man, clearly playing on his exaggerated reputation.
Much as Keaton is now a lot older, so is his character Riggan Thomson. For the sake of Michael Keaton’s mental well-being, hopefully unlike the real actor playing Riggan, the sleep-deprived movie-star constantly hears the sarcastic voice of Birdman in his head, patronising him and making snide remarks at every turn in his desperate attempts to get his career back on track. Ploughing his own money into the production, Riggan claws at his last moments of sanity and languishes on his reputation as he pushes himself to adapt the Raymond Carver story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love as a stage play on Broadway. Gradually the toll it takes on him being writer, director, producer and starring in the lead role begins to wear him down. He notices how his own relationships to his ex-wife and rebellious daughter, as well as his co-stars and longing for adoration/attention from fans and critics alike, mimic those of the character in his play.
From the way I’ve described it above, it doesn’t exactly sound like the kind of film to make you laugh out loud as frequently as it does. In fact, I’m well aware that by putting it in black and white like that, I’ve made it sound kind of boring. The genius in the film lies with the way the story has been told and the way it has been made. It’s almost two hours long in total, however, it’s all filmed as if the whole movie is just one continuous single shot. This isn’t a completely unique concept for a film to attempt; indeed the Director of Photography on the film, Emmanuel Lubezki, was praised for very similar shots during Gravity. The twist is that the plot takes place over the course of about three days. From the early scene re-casting of one of the characters in the play at the last minute, to the disastrous preview show and Keaton’s breakdown, all the way through to the morning after the opening night; it appears as if all you’ve witnessed is one camera on record for two hours solid. The pace of the film, the way it’s been stitched together, even just little things like keeping the lighting right, it’s seamless. A remarkable achievement by all involved. I’ve read a few reviews and articles and I still cannot fathom how some of the scenes were even created.
Honestly, it is absolutely bloody brilliant from start to finish. Even something so simple as the soundtrack is, well, not so simple. Just one bloke who improvised some drum beats, banging away on his kit in a rather jazz percussion sort of way (who occasionally pops up on screen himself) fits the organised-chaotic tone.
I’ve already mentioned Keaton and Norton, but I’m still struggling to decide who was better. I genuinely, hand on heart believe this tops any performance of theirs in any other movie. And yes, even better than American History X, by the way. It’s just a joy to watch two actors simply be that good. If someone put a gun to my head (you’ll get why that’s a funny reference after you see the film), then I’d lean slightly more towards Keaton who really is sensational. He’s extremely funny, manic, completely absorbed in his role and it’s like finally seeing that guy who showed such promise in Beetlejuice just completely fulfilling his potential. And that makes me happy. It isn’t just those two, though. The entire ensemble cast, including the likes of Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough, Zach Galifianakis; they’re all fantastic too.
To be a bit of a dick for a minute and put a label on something (or rather take it off), I suppose it isn’t ‘perfect’. The dialogue is not always its best asset. Although I did really like Emma Stone’s performance as Keaton’s recently out of rehab daughter-turned-Personal Assistant, it’s just that some of the role her character plays seems a tad out of place. A scene on a rooftop shared with Norton starts out really well, as a chemistry between them begins to fizzle, but ends up with a rather cringing game of truth or dare. A scene later on in the dressing room between Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough was.. well.. meaningless beyond simply giving in to what the audience supposedly want.
It doesn’t detract really, it’s still overall an absolutely amazing movie. It’s so deliberately and anarchically hypocritical. One minute it’s slagging off blockbuster movies and the kinds of people who throw money at the likes of Michael Bay to make shitty Transformers movies, and studios who churn out superhero flick after superhero flick. And then in the next moment, it’s subtly mocking the pretentious, holier than thou snobs who sneer and turn their nose up at things they’re ignorant of in order to appear superior. There’s rants, there’s tirades, there’s beautifully delivered put downs and some more emotional aspects that almost catch you unawares. Yet Birdman is totally self aware, fully prepared to poke fun at itself all whilst maintaining something spectacular.
The more I’ve thought about it since leaving the cinema earlier this month, the more I’ve wanted to go and watch it again. It was the first new release film that I watched in 2015 and already it’s going to have to be a hell of a film to top it at some point during the rest of this year. I urge you to see it before it leaves cinemas!
You can hear Owen talk about Birdman plus other new releases Unbroken, The Theory of Everything and more with Steve, Gerry and Matt on the upcoming Failed Critics Podcast.