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Fox Searchlight Pictures // R // October 17, 2014
List Price: Unknown [Buy now and save at Fandango]
Over recent years, we have been receiving quite a few award-winners that are films made about film. Feels a bit like a pat on the back, doesn't it? Features such as Argo and The Artist are successful in what they set out to do, but how often is it that we see a narrative about another industry in the same light? Not often enough. Alejandro González Iñárritu is using Birdman as his opportunity to do something completely different by exploring Broadway in a way that is inventive and perhaps even a little maddening. Whether you end up loving it or hating it is irrelevant. At least you'll feel a passionate amount of emotion once the credits roll, and that's more than what can be said about the majority of films released in modern times.
Riggan (Michael Keaton) is a washed up actor, whose glory days are in the past. Once having played iconic superhero Birdman, he wishes to revive his career in an impactful way by making a show on Broadway. Battling his massive ego and tremendous family troubles, he rushes to make sure that every detail in his play is perfect. However, casting the ever-popular Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) proves to pose problems that Riggan isn't prepared for.
Iñárritu instantly dives into the dark humor that is Riggan's Birdman persona. Within the first few minutes, we're already questioning whether he really has these abilities, or if it's all in his head. Perhaps it's a way of staying in touch with his glory days that haunt him, yet he isn't ready to let them go. After all, his dressing room seems to be the place for him to argue with this ego. This is a film that truly understands its material and its motifs enough to craft a sense of humor around it. This is a satire on show business. It speaks on the behalf of the creator of that material, as well as the people that derive pleasure from it. What we're left with is a genuinely funny picture that makes us laugh at both ourselves, as well as the industry that we all enjoy following so much. The majority of this humor is reflected in both the dialogue and some particularly awkward moments that occur both on and off the stage. While not trying to constantly create an uproar of laughter, the humor flows naturally through the picture.
However, Birdman isn't all laughs. It has a very serious set of themes within that are simply elevated by its ability to evoke a comedic tone. In the attempt to keep everything under control, Riggan begins to have a mental breakdown of his own. Best friend and producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) is left with the task of keeping him together. In what is perhaps one of the most sincere moments of the picture, Riggan's daughter Sam (Emma Stone) retaliates against her father's attempt to control her. This leads to a particularly fascinating display of rage, as she scolds her father for his attempts to make it back in the spotlight. This is a film that heavily discusses the message of the fear we have of being forgotten. We all want to make our mark on the world, and this is all that Riggan knows how to do. He has sacrificed his family's well-being for his craft, which provides its own set of dramatic elements. This is a morally complex picture that asks us to question the "protagonist" and his choices. How do they affect those around him, and what are the consequences that he must endure?
Audiences get the chance to dive deeper into the mind of Riggan, as he continues to descent into insanity. The third act takes all of the issues and connects them in order to produce the picture's climax. Unfortunately, this final act doesn't prove to be quite as impactful as everything that has come before it. We're finally introduced to the Broadway critic that has been referred to throughout the entire picture, and Iñárritu turns her into a one-dimensional antagonistic role with no realistic motive. Many of her points are valid, although they're backed by superficiality. She could have been better utilized through the final act, although it feels like an afterthought in order to produce a little bit more tension at the end. Except, it doesn't need it, since it's already incredibly tense! It's at this point that other character interactions fail to make sense in the grand scheme of what we've learned about them. This is a relatively disappointing end to a film that manages to be extremely consistent up until this point.
Michael Keaton is a name that I hadn't heard in a while, but he truly delivers this film with a bang. He's absolutely phenomenal in the role of Riggan. With the picture constantly asking us to look within his mind, he truly commands our attention. There's a sense of urgency and tension in this performance that draws us in, and makes it literally impossible to look away. Edward Norton is phenomenal as the egotistical Mike Shiner. He describes himself as being able to represent any persona, other than himself. Norton does a wonderful job making this incredibly unlikable character relatively sympathetic by the time the credits are rolling. Norton and Keaton deliver a sense of power on screen that is absolutely brilliant. Emma Stone is exceptional as Riggan's daughter, Sam. In what I previously described as being the most genuine scene in the film, Stone is a powerhouse that drives every bit of the picture's intensity up a notch. Even supporting performances from Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, and Amy Ryan are all massively successful. There isn't a single poor performance given here, as they manage to make us laugh, sit at the edge of our seat, and feel uncomfortable.
Filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu has an extremely intriguing style that gives Birdman a soul of its own. It's filmed and edited to make the entire picture appear in one take. This truly aids in convincing us that we're watching a play happening behind the scenes of a another play. While some of the long takes become a bit exhausting, these visual choices certainly put us in the middle of this chaotic storm of emotion, anger, and fear. However, the score becomes headache-inducing, as pounding drums are an element held consistently through what feels like the course of the entire running time. The fact that we're meant to get into Riggan's mindset is clear, but the score becomes far too much.
Birdman is a lot more than just a story. It's more of an experience that must be assessed on an individual's own basis with one's own biases. Opinions are sure to vary regarding nearly every character, as our sympathies truly drive the picture. We're tasked with venturing through the mind of this once popular figure, who is absolutely terrified of being forgotten. Even though the film may be a comedy, it still strives with its more serious themes, which work rather well in the plot's grand scheme. Even though the final act is slightly hindering, this is still a worthwhile piece of cinema that explores the behind-the-scenes of a Broadway play, in the form of a play. Birdman is uniquely effective in both its dramatic and comedic themes. Highly recommended!