Film review: Birdman - Michael Keaton soars in showbiz satire
Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Let us first concede that Birdman — whose pompous full title is Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) — is indeed flashy and narcissistic. A technical showcase that appears fully conscious of its own virtuosity, its makers flaunt its overacting frolics, tricky cinematography and an unrelenting jazzy music track as if this is all a game of showmanship.
What's more remarkable still is Alejandro González Iñárritu's feat of shaping all these outlandish elements into one delightful masterpiece. After a run of sorrowful dramas, including 21 Grams (2003), Babel (2006) and Biutiful (2010), the Mexican writer-director's first attempt at black comedy is a New York-set showbiz satire that is at once human and larger than life.
Iñárritu has Michael Keaton to thank for lending not just an awards-winning performance but also his credentials as a former superhero to feed the imagination of older film geeks.
In the same year that the actor signed off as the Dark Knight with Batman Returns (1992), the character he plays in this film, Riggan Thomson, turned down the chance to star in another sequel of the Birdman blockbuster franchise.
Desperate to jump-start his career, Riggan, now a has-been actor, has mortgaged the house meant for his fresh-out-of-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone) to finance a Raymond Carver theatrical adaptation for which he's the writer, director and star. A vanity project if ever there was one, Riggan's stint at the historic St James Theatre in Times Square turns out to be a magnet for trouble.
Although he enjoys the friendly support of his producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) and lead actress Lesley (Naomi Watts), the Broadway debutant must juggle a plea for commitment by his actress girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough), the gigantic ego of his bad-boy co-star Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) and the threat by a critic from The New York Times (Lindsay Duncan) to rip the show apart before seeing it.
The craftsmanship involved in Birdman is eye-opening. Captured by Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer who devised the landmark long takes in Children of Men (2006) and Gravity (2013), Iñárritu's two-hour film comprises 10-minute-plus takes seamlessly put together to look like one continuous shot.
The conceit is not new — consider Aleksandr Sokurov's one-take wonder Russian Ark (2002) — but it's hard to find a precedent before Birdman that has so thrillingly matched the hovering camerawork with its protagonist's manic disposition. As Riggan leaps from reality into Walter Mitty-like fantasy sequences involving telekinetic power or a meteor hurtling towards the earth, we aren't even given time to blink.
Combine that with Antonio Sanchez's enthralling percussive score — with swells of classical music thrown in — and it feels like one hallucinatory trip through time and space that chronicles both an actor's breakdown and the seismic shift of celebrity culture in this digital age. Birdman is one exhilarating film.
Birdman opens on January 22