I highly anticipated ‘Birdman,’ but failed to catch it at the cinema. So I had to wait until it was released on home video. The extra months of anticipation could have built up the movie to an unimaginable degree in my mind. But after watching it, I can confirm that it fully deserved the Oscar for Best Picture. What I witnessed was not only a masterclass in editing, filming and directing, but a timely and imposing meditation on the great themes of our times (and other times). What is the measure of a man? What defines success? Is show business worth it? And, to paraphrase the title of Raymond Carver’s short story, what do we talk about when we talk about love?
Riggan Thompson (played by Michael Keaton) is directing, and starring in his adaptation of Carver’s short story on Broadway. He is best known for his appearance as the great superhero ‘Birdman,’ and has done nothing memorable since the Birdman trilogy. The play is his chance to prove that he’s more than just a man in a mask. He sabotages his co-star, Ralph, and replaces him with the brilliant method actor Mike Shiner (played by Edward Norton). However, Shiner almost destroys the preview, and leads to Thompson questioning his life…
Thompson’s divorced, his daughter (Sam, played by Emma Stone) hates him, and he’s struggling to brush off the demon of his past (Birdman). Although we rarely see Birdman as a person, his voice taunts and teases Thompson (and the audience) throughout the film. In a Christian Bale-as-Batman growl of a voice, Birdman constantly asks Thompsons to become the superhero once more. Our first sight of Thompson is him levitating, Buddha-like, in his dressing room. He can move things around telekinetically. At one point, he flies around New York for a while. Is it real, or is it Memorex? Has Thompson been so tortured by Birdman that he has deluded himself into thinking that he has superpowers?
“I don’t exist. I’m not even here.”
The film has superficial similarities to Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan,’ in that life imitates art during a stage performance. However, I believe it is even more similar to Aronofsky’s ‘The Wrestler.’ They both follow men who are only notable for their alter-egos; Thompson as Birdman, Robin Ramzinski as Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson. At various points in the film, the camera follows Thompson from behind, reminiscent of similar scenes in ‘The Wrestler.’ Thompson shares the same problems as Robinson: a daughter who loathes him, an existential crisis about who he is, etc. Off-screen, it shares similarities as well. ‘The Wrestler’ was seen as the resurgence of Mickey Rourke, a big actor in the 80s/early 90s who fell by the wayside (who, after ‘The Wrestler, starred in the superhero flick Iron Man2…). Birdman was seen as the resurgence of Michael Keaton, the guy who played Batman in the 80s/early 90s.
It is very much Keaton’s film. Keaton is firing on all cylinders, gradually descending into fantasy in real life, but improving on stage. His first words during a dialogue rehearsal are stifled, forced and unconvincing. But during the real performance at the end of the film, he commands the stage (and, also, the screen). He’s grappling with problems like egotism existence. In his daughter’s words, Thompson ‘doesn’t exist.’ Of course, the implicit meaning is that he doesn’t exist to her. But ostensibly, she means that he doesn’t exist in the real world. He’s not on any social networks (crucially, she only starts to believe in him when he goes viral, after being filmed wandering New York in his underpants). A line he says during the plays says it all: “I don’t exist. I’m not even here.” The play isn’t about art. It’s about validating his ego, as a critic points out. It’s to prove that he does exist. Part of it, like his ex-wife notes, is that he has mistaken admiration for love.
“Forget about her…he’s stealing your show”
Early on in the film, Edward Norton steals the show as Shiner (a method actor playing a method actor…meta!). It happens as Shiner is stealing the stage from Thompson, in another irony. Shiner gets the front page; Thompson gets a line on page twelve. Shiner is another voice questioning Thompson, interrogating him and trying to find a ‘truth.’ At one point in the film, Shiner asks Keaton about the point of his play. No matter what, Shiner says, Thompson will always be known as Birdman. He started the ‘cultural genocide’ of superhero films taking over the silver screen. Norton is brilliant in every scene, even threatening to usurp Keaton at several moments. However, in the third act, Keaton brings everything to the table. Shiner’s screen time is minimized, and it’s all about Keaton. In a good way. In a very good way.
The supporting cast is excellent. Stone, who filmed her scenes in between takes for ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’, draws out three dimensions in what could have been a one-dimensional character. She knows that her dad is somewhere, but he’s lost. Naomi Watts impresses (and even has a Mulholland Drive-esque kiss with her female co-star). But a minor problem with the film is that the focus is on Keaton, so simmering subplots fall by the wayside (like the aforementioned lesbian kiss. Or was that just a meta-swipe at Mulholland Drive?). The supporting cast are just that; supporters for Keaton.
Every detail is richly constructed (such as the note in Thompson’s dressing room that says “A thing is a thing, not what is said of the thing”). The apparent one-shot take of the majority of the film is majestic to behold. We are seeing the important parts of Thompson’s life, without the dross in between. It’s not just a gimmick, as it draws us ever more into the film. It also gives the film a theatre-like quality, so the actors/actresses have to keep up a scene for the duration of the scene, rather than having cuts between them during dialogue. I’ve mentioned but a few of the themes tackled in the film. There are many more. From start to finish, an awe-inspiring film. A film that questions and provokes the viewer as much as Birdman questions and provokes Thompson.
VERDICT: 10/10. Fully deserving of the Oscar for Best Picture. I could ramble on and on about it, but suffice to say: Watch it! Right now!