Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan, Merritt Wever, Natalie Gold. Written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Armando Bo, Alexander Dinelaris.
It’s a first-rate production in almost every regard, and the (deserving) recipient of nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and most other categories it’s eligible for. But I left Birdman with one predominant feeling: why don’t I like this more?
Quick answer: it’s all a little too on-the-nose. But it isn’t quite that easy…
Birdman is fluidly directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, who keeps the action moving at a fever pitch even though we’re essentially watching a stage play. While the story is entirely driven by dialogue (along with some internal monologue from the Michael Keaton character), Iñárritu is careful never to lose control of the film or let things get too talky; the result is a completely engaging piece of storytelling that works on both literal and allegorical levels.
The director, who received critical acclaim for each of his previous features (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, and Biutiful) has by most accounts achieved his greatest success here.
The screenplay, by Iñárritu along with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo, is a delicious bit of thought-provoking meta craftsmanship (a perfect match for its lead, who the film has been written for) and also thematically rich and relevant, underscored by the extended title (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
Then there are the performances, including the highly-touted comeback role for Michael Keaton, who is essentially playing himself as Riggan Thomson, a once-big-name actor who turned down the title role in “Birdman 4” to pursue more artistic interests and has been struggling to distinguish himself ever since (Keaton, of course, turned down the Batman role after starring in the first two Tim Burton movies).
Birdman also features some meaty roles for Edward Norton as respected stage actor Mike Shiner, who fills in at the last minute on Thomson’s big Broadway show; Naomi Watts as Thomson and Shiner’s co-star; Amy Ryan as another co-star and Riggan’s girlfriend; Zach Galifinakis as the show’s producer; Andrea Riseborough as Riggan’s ex-wife; and Emma Stone as his daughter and assistant.
That Broadway show, by the way, is an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love; Thomson decided to become an actor once upon a time because of a compliment from the author.
The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, The Tree of Life) is flat-out mesmerizing. Birdman takes place over a number of days (weeks?) but it’s framed as if it were a single, fluid camera movement: one shot. As Riggan and co. rehearse the play, argue backstage, walk around some wonderfully atmospheric New York City streets, and get ready for opening night, Lubezki’s camera endlessly follows them without the aid of edits, resulting in an intense buildup that is sustained right through the climax.
While the passage of time is creatively illustrated, a hard edit is never made. Instead, the film has been flawlessly stitched together by editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione, who conceived with the director when and how an edit could be made before and during filming.
The percussion – drums only – soundtrack by Antonio Sanchez is magnificent, and one of the most unique and memorable scores in recent memory; unfortunately, it was disqualified from Oscar eligibility due to the film’s use of some incidental music by classical composers.
Birdman features all these incredible parts, and yet the whole didn’t seem to resonate with me as much as I wanted it to. It’s missing the subtlety that would really make it soar: the thematically underbelly of it all is almost relentlessly pounded into us, and each of these wonderful parts feels aggressively over-the-top when combined into an ungainly whole. Quiet moments get completely lost as the film frequently seems to be shouting at its audience.
Birdman is somewhat similar to another Keaton comeback movie, the terrific Game 6, which slipped in completely under the radar back in 2005 despite a terrific starring turn by Keaton (as good as he is here) and a meaty role for Robert Downey Jr. In that film, Keaton played a playwright wandering the streets of Boston and slowly going mad on the eve of the opening of his latest play. If you’re a fan of this one, check it out.
While the whole of Birdman didn’t completely work for me, the strengths of its individual parts make this an unforgettable feature. It’s also one that seems poised to score big on Oscar night.