I’d be surprised if I found a film that came out in the past few years more divisive than Birdman. Coming out of awards season with the Academy Award for Best Picture amongst several others, a lot of people saw this as Hollywood once again patting itself on the back with another self-congratulatory tale of an actor aspiring to greatness when the world around him tries its damndest to pull him back down to Earth as though he were Icarus flying towards the sun. Except Icarus’ wings were made of wax and melted when he got too close. And if that metaphor seemed a bit pretentious in your mind, this is going to be a fun ride. This movie will have you gripping your seat with anticipation or throwing a balled up piece of paper at your television. Or maybe the constant drums in the background will give you a headache.
Birdman stars Michael Keaton as Riggan, an actor whose days of playing an iconic superhero are long behind him (get it?), trying to mount a comeback by directing, producing, and starring in a serious-minded Broadway production. Of course things aren’t going as planned. The show is running out of money, and with one of the leads incapacitated they’ve had to bring in Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a wild card actor whose as unstable as Riggan is neurotic. Through it all Riggan has to keep everyone on track to make sure that by the time the play opens, everyone agrees he’s finally made something worthwhile so that he can finally escape from his former persona, Birdman.
The movie tries to keep a lot of plates spinning at one time, and nearly all of them stay in the air until the end. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few moments where one of them might fumble. The movie is shot in a way to make it seem like it’s all being done in one long take, with the cuts hidden between moments. The intent is to make the film more like a play, wherein you aren’t offered any rest from the action because the action that would be happening “on stage” doesn’t stop. It definitely sets a restless tone for the film, even if thematically it isn’t entirely necessary to stage in that way. Whether or not you like the movie, it becomes a fun little game to try and find where the edits are. Some of them are a bit obvious, but the more subtle ones are harder to find if the story is successfully carrying you along. That, and a couple of tangential plot-lines might act more as a distraction to the story rather than an enhancement.
The film hangs on Keaton’s performance. As the man at the center of the production, he’s the linchpin not only to the success of the play he’s attempting to put on, but also the movie itself. And his performance shines through here. You can almost feel the exacerbation radiating off of him as he tries to reign in all the unstable elements he’s brought into this, including but not limited to actors, an ex-wife, his daughter, his audience, and a particularly judgmental critic. Of course they all bring it to the table as well. Emma Stone as Keaton’s daughter Sam, in a role she played during a brief vacation from The Amazing Spider-Man 2, drives home some of the best scenes in the film. Edward Norton’s crazy, cocky, method actor Mike knows how to entertain both a theater and movie audience.
What makes the film so divisive in the end is just what his relationships are in the movie. Riggan, not only as a character but as an idea, “the man who wants to make great art in spite of everyone being against him” is the personification of what most self-centered artists see themselves as, but this isn’t the way the movie presents him. This means that movie is always tugging in two different directions for most of the conflict in the story. When characters rail against Riggan for being a self-centered and broken individual, the intent may be a tirade intended to wake someone up to what a jerk they’re being, but also becomes a vindication of the art they are trying to create. Depending on what side you fall on, that may make what they’re saying meaningless or it may make it frustrating. It both justifies and vilifies Riggan’s narcissism throughout the film. What it comes down to is interpretation.
I’d say this movie is definitely worth your time, but what you’ll get out of it will depend on what you put into it. What’s certain is that there aren’t many movies like it.
Birdman Premieres Saturday, August 1st at 8pm on HBO!