Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Cast: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts
RunTime: 1 hr 59 mins
Rating: M18 (Coarse Language And Sexual References)
Released By: 20th Century Fox
Opening Day: 15 January 2015
Synopsis: BIRDMAN is a black comedy that tells the story of an actor (Michael Keaton) – famous for portraying an iconic superhero – as he struggles to mount a Broadway play. In the days leading up to opening night, he battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career, and himself.
Wasn’t it Batman, you say? In a delightfully self-referential meta-riff, Alejandro González Iñárritu has cast Michael Keaton in the role of Riggan Thompson, a washed-up action star whose most famous role was playing a superhero character named Birdman before walking away from the franchise (he didn’t want to do ‘Birdman 4’). Almost two decades later, the balding, once fit, now paunchy Riggan is trying to make a comeback by adapting, directing and starring in a stage adaptation of the landmark Raymond Carver story ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. That second part doesn’t apply to Keaton, but the resemblance with Keaton’s own fate in Hollywood after he walked away from a US$15 million offer to reprise Batman in the mid-1990s is an uncanny – but obviously intentional – bit of casting.
And yet, Iñárritu’s latest, a sharp and exuberant satire on the costs and consequences of celebrity, doesn’t just rest on the coattails of its lead star Keaton. Co-written by Iñárritu, ‘Birdman’ represents a significant departure for the director who has made his name with serious-minded (and sometimes pretentious) multi-stranded narrative dramas ‘Amores Perros’, ’21 Grams’ and ‘Babel’. Not only does it see him abandon his pet themes of fate, circumstance and consequence for more individualistic ones like narcissism, ambition and insecurity, ‘Birdman’ is also so stylistically different from the aforementioned movies that it will completely stun those who familiar with his previous works – and fittingly so, Iñárritu has altered his onscreen credit from “Gonzalez” to a simpler and perhaps much more elegant ‘G’.
But ‘Birdman’s’ distinctive style isn’t Iñárritu’s credit alone – indeed, its bravura visuals are also the creative accomplishment of Iñárritu’s longtime Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who has managed to realise Iñárritu’s vision of filming the movie to resemble one single continuous shot. The illusion is meant as a metaphor of how everything in Riggan’s life flows together – his alter-ego whose voice he debates with inside his head, his stage persona, his identity crisis, and as the movie progresses, his delusions of grandiosity and self-importance – and proves itself to be more than just a gimmick. In fact, one would say that the film gains its verve from the free-flowing nature of the camerawork, which veers and swoops around the actors’ entrances and exits through the backstage warrens of Broadway’s St. James Theater, onto the stage, into the audience, up on the roof, out onto the streets of Times Square, and upwards into the sky itself, blending scenes effortlessly into one another.
Their remarkable feat in both choreography and cinematography is matched by Iñárritu’s ceaseless imagination, that shuffles effortlessly between fantasy and reality. Certainly, one is forewarned of such flights of fancy by a transfixing opening sequence, which sees Keaton, wearing only a pair of white briefs, levitating four feet above the ground of his dressing room in a lotus position. On occasion, Keaton is also seen to be moving and destroying objects in his mind, his temper manifesting itself in the form of delusional super-powers. Most substantially, Keaton is visited by his costume-clad alter-ego in shimmering black feathers and a beaked mask, who is both his harshest critic as well as his most powerful motivator, the latter of which will eventually be responsible for taking his craft as an actor to dangerous proportions. Though centred around an individual’s very real existential crisis, it is also part magical-realist fable as it paints the very same individual’s hallucinations of himself that stem from his obsession – as well as that of the public – over his most defining role as an artist.
Make no mistake, this is a character study, and one that also explores the character’s relationships with those around Riggan – a headstrong junkie daughter (Emma Stone) who harbours resentment against him for not being as involved a parent as she would have hoped; his possibly pregnant lover (Andrea Riseborough) both on and off stage; a fading movie star (Naomi Watts) whose career is also riding on her Broadway debut; and an highly talented co-star (Edward Norton) who was supposed to be the play’s saving grace but turns out to be both supercilious and destructive. Riggan however finds unexpected comfort in his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) as well as, to some extent, his straight-talking and surprisingly down-to-earth manager cum lawyer cum best friend (Zach Galifianakis); we first meet these characters on the day before the first preview, and stay with them all the way up to opening night.
The supporting cast are uniformly superb, perhaps we would say, the best ensemble in a movie we’ve seen this year. Galifianakis surprises with a subtle performance unlike that in ‘The Hangover’ which one has come to expect from him; Watts is both poignant and funny as the actress in her 40s who is struggling to find her relevance on Broadway. Stone is electrifying as Riggan’s unhinged daughter, particularly impressive in a diatribe of brutal candour as she points out her father’s irrelevance in the age of Twitter and Facebook. And Norton is simply mesmerising to watch as Riggan’s self-absorbed co-star, his parody of Method actors hilarious to watch in particular as he gets an erection performing a sex scene in front of an audience of 800.
But most of the buzz since the film debuted has been about Keaton, and truly that praise is well-earned. As phenomenal a comeback as any, Keaton takes your breath away with an performance that packs humour, nuance, pathos, vulnerability and most of all, heart-aching sincerity. There is no safety net in Keaton’s vanity-free showcase, the 63-year-old actor not afraid to let his wrinkles, saggy paunch and thinning hair be captured in their full honesty – or for that matter, to take a jog through Times Square in nothing more than a pair of tighty-whiteys. Thanks to Keaton, Iñárritu’s showbiz satire becomes an absolute tour-de-force, an incisive, affecting and delightful meta-commentary on the pitfalls of fame, ambition and ego. It is quite simply one of the most unique and original films you’ll see this year.
(Michael Keaton drops all vanity for a career-defining, delightfully meta performance in a similarly groundbreaking showbiz satire from Iñárritu that is one of the most original and visually distinctive films this year)
Review by Gabriel Chong