By Ed Symkus
More Content Now
I successfully stayed away from any information about this movie till I entered the theater — didn’t even know who directed it or who was in it. Because I got there about a minute after it started, I still don’t know if any names popped up at the beginning. But I almost immediately got caught up in the emotions of the characters, the offbeat style of the storytelling and the long, long tracking shots, as well as the sometimes-bizarre plot that had the film dipping in and out of reality and fantasy and maybe a combination of both.
I wondered if this was a new collaboration between Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman, who gave us “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.” I was pretty much convinced it was until the end credits revealed that it came from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Amores Perros,” “Babel”).
That discovery was as stunning as when, much earlier in the film, I recognized first Michael Keaton (who will win the Best Actor Oscar this year), then, in whatever order, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone (easily her best performance), Edward Norton (timewise, on-screen, it might have to be a Supporting Actor Oscar) and a thinned-down, not-at-all goofy Zach Galifianakis. These folks just kept popping up!
I’m not going to go into what the movie is about here. I’ll just say that it involves acting, actors’ egos and movies versus stage plays, and that it owes at least part of its emotional impact to the nasty little Raymond Carver story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” (Carver’s stories made up the spine of Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts.”)
Since seeing the film, I’ve heard talk of how its main character, Riggan, played by Keaton, largely mirrors Keaton’s life. Yeah, yeah, he plays an actor who made his name by portraying a comic book superhero named Birdman (you’ll recall that Keaton played Batman twice), gave up the franchise, floundered around for a long while and is trying for a comeback, doing anything but playing that same superhero character.
Fine, tuck that little bit of plotting in the back of your head and think, if you must, of “Birdman” as Keaton’s comeback film. (For the record, he’s made 20 or so films since “Batman Returns,” and was the best part of “Toy Story 3,” providing the voice of Barbie’s guy, Ken.) Then get on with enjoying and being astounded by this amazing movie.
Riggan, now only remembered for those movies from two decades in the past, is staging his comeback on the stage, on Broadway, mind you, adapting, directing and starring in a play based on that Carver story. He is betting everything on it, and it’s turning into the only thing he has left to live for. His marriage has ended; his daughter Sam (Stone), fresh out of rehab and now working as his assistant, has lost faith in him; his male costar in the four-person play can’t act.
But that guy’s last-minute replacement, Mike (Norton), who mysteriously becomes available on the day before previews are to begin, sure can. Hell, he knows the never-before-seen play inside and out, has memorized the lines of every character and completely understands their motivations. All is well!
No, not really. Riggan is a worrywart, one that, mind you, happens to have the power of telekinesis. He can move small objects with his mind but he can’t control the goings-on of his actors, certainly not those of the egocentric, method-mad Mike, who insists on using vodka, not water, for the scenes in which he’s supposed to be getting drunk. Riggan can do even less when Mike rekindles feelings from an old relationship with their uninterested costar Lesley (Naomi Watts).
But the complications haven’t even begun. Riggan must also deal with an inner voice, one that he’s probably carried for years, one that speaks the low, growling, unforgiving sentiments of Birdman, the fictional character he used to play, and who now wants him to get off the stage and get busy resurrecting the movie franchise.
The film is brimming with brilliantly constructed long takes that move in circles around characters onstage, coast along with them through corridors and down stairways, and float with them on the streets of New York. Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity”) add both razzle and dazzle to the proceedings, but the sparks really fly when Keaton and Norton share scenes together, often in extreme close-up, and show what great and fearless acting is all about.
This is exciting and introspective adult entertainment of the highest order. Do not wait for it to come to your living room screen. See it now, in a theater with a crowd, where everyone will be wowed.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Written by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
With Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis
Movie review: Birdman,’ Keaton soar
By Ed Symkus