Closing out this year's New York Film Festival is the latest film from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman. It’s not often that an art-house director takes on the superhero genre, but this is a special case where Iñárritu is not really adapting a fictional comic book character (I mean, all superheroes are fictional, right?), but rather a look at celebrity and how that clashes with art and commerce. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) manages to be one of the craziest movies of the year, while keeping drama and tensions high throughout its entire running time. There's so much to unpack with [Birdman](movie:780317), so let's get into it, shall we...
Birdman follows Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed up actor trying to break away from his public identity as the superhero Birdman. Thomson hasn't dawned the cape and beak in over 20 years, but the general public only knows about his work in the Birdman trilogy in the early 90s. He's on the verge of a show business comeback with a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver short stories based on "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." Thomson stars, wrote, and directed the new Broadway play that is about to open in a few short days.
Throughout the film, we see Thomson deal with rehearsals, the play's producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) and daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who is also his personal assistant, replacing a key actor with famed stage actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), and the voice of Birdman lingering in his head, which can also be seen as his conscience. A budding subplot with Riggan's new lover Laura's (Andrea Riseborough) pregnancy, who is also the play's co-stars, and Lesley's (Naomi Watts) neuroses also emerge.
While the film explores the opening of a new play on Broadway, it also chronicles Riggan's dissent into madness captured in (seemingly) one single long shot through cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's brilliant free-floating camera lens. Birdman is wonderful and one of those movies that keeps you guessing from scene to scene. From it's promising opening shot of a Riggan floating in his dressing room to the film's final shot of Sam's wide-eyed glance out of a window, Birdman is not only worth watching, but it might be the best superhero movie of the year!
While it's not exactly a superhero movie in the conventional sense, it does explore the genre's popularity on pop culture and cinema. It doesn't boil down whether the genre is good for cinema, but rather presents it as a satire on the entire Hollywood system of celebrity and art.
"I can't believe they put him in a cape!" is uttered when Riggan's discovers that an actor he wants might be too busy to be in his play. That line expresses the popularity of the genre and Hollywood's inability to shine attention on art film, like the ones from Alejandro González Iñárritu. There's this sharp division between reality and fiction, as Edward Norton's Mike Shiner is only real on the stage, and pretending everywhere else. This idea is heightened with Iñárritu sharp melodrama and Birdman's overall tone.
Creating an entire film in one (seemingly) long continuous shot is not style for style's sake, but rather a look at the behind-the-scenes goings on of a busy and working stage play. The camera dips in and out of rooms with ease and creates the idea that things are going on even when the camera is not focusing on the action. It's a very smart technique that puts another feather in Emmanuel Lubezki's cap as one of the best cinematographers in Hollywood.
There's also an idea of the critic versus the artist, and which is more valuable to art. While I'm biased as a film critic, the irony isn't lost on me -- both are needed as a conversation of art overall. While those bits of the film felt somewhat sloppy, it worked to get the film's idea in a clearly stated way. Birdman might have its critics, but this one really took to its overall tone, story, and presentation.
From Naomi Watts' doubting Lesley to Edward Norton's cocky Mike Shiner, all the actors are top notch in the film too. The standouts for me was the film's central family with Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, and, of course, Michael Keaton. There's a certain way of Ryan and Stone's performances that lends to the hyper reality of Birdman, while Zach Galifianakis' Jake gives the film some subtle levity. Michael Keaton gives the performance of his career as Riggan Thomson. There's no mistaking his casting as a former superhero dealing with the weight of his iconic character.
Keaton after all played Batman in the late 80s and early 90s. In fact, the film's casting is very clever. Not only do with have Michael Keaton, who played Batman, we also have Edward Norton, who was the Incredible Hulk, and Emma Stone, who was Gwen Stacy from The Amazing Spider-Man. It seems that Iñárritu could've cast Birdman entirely of actors who used to be in superhero movies.
But Keaton gives more with [Birdman](movie:780317). He has to convey ambition, along with paranoia and madness. His character is going crazy, after all. Michael Keaton gives the character a certain pathos and sympathy, as a man trying to do right by his family, while trying to mount a comeback, with an overall look at mental instability in the performing arts.
Birdman might not be for the comic book fan boy who believes the superhero movie genre is the height of cinema, but it is for anyone who can take art and movies with a hint of irony. Birdman is a satire and a keen look at celebrity culture in the social media age. It's a film that is fully engaging with a few laughs and high drama. It's well worth your time and offers counter programming to the superhero genre and pop culture.