Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman is exhilarating to watch for the superb performances of its stars—Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, and Zach Galifianakis—and the technical wizardry of the camera work.
Keaton stars as Riggan, an actor famous for portraying an iconic superhero, who is attempting to revive his career by mounting an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story on Broadway. In the days leading up to opening night, Riggan must deal with re-casting one of his lead actors and the possibility that his girlfriend, who is also his co-star, might be pregnant.
And to make things even more interesting it’s possible Riggan is seriously losing his grip on reality as he believes he can move objects with his mind and make himself float in air. Not to mention the fact that he continuously hears the voice of his former superhero character in his head.
It’s wonderful to see Keaton in a starring role again and this movie is sure to reinvigorate his career. What a treat it will be to see Keaton in the movies more regularly.
To capture the energy of the theater backstage, Inarritu filmed Birdman as a series of long, uninterrupted scenes, which blend seamlessly together and enhance rather than detract from the story.
Long takes are extremely difficult to pull off because a director can’t cut away or shoot a different angle and the actors can’t re-do a line without starting over from the beginning of the scene.
When it works, a long take can be quite memorable, such as the scene in Goodfellas where Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco use a back entrance through a nightclub to get to their front row table.
Assisting Inarritu’s efforts are cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who found a way to light the long scenes realistically and seamlessly, editor Douglas Crise, and production designer Kevin Thompson, who does a splendid job recreating the backstage of the famous St. James theater in all its messy, rundown glory.
Adding to the vibrant energy of the movie is a jazz drum backdrop that adds a sense of urgency to every scene. Birdman is far from a madcap comedy, however, and Inarritu had the sense to add some emotion to the movie via the father-daughter relationship between Riggan and Sam (Stone), who is freshly out of rehab and working as her dad’s assistant.
Stone holds her own with Keaton and Norton, who plays a talented yet unstable actor who is brought in when the lead actor is injured in a freak accident. The role gives Norton a chance to poke fun at the lengths some actors go to to achieve their art.
Everyone in the cast seems to be having fun playing up the idiosyncrasies of actors and even when something seems over-the-top, the performances are never forced. Watts is vulnerable as an actress whose lifelong dream has been to perform on Broadway and Galifianakis proves he can act without being goofy.
Even the supporting cast—notably Amy Ryan as Riggan’s ex-wife, and Lindsay Duncan, as a deliciously malicious theater critic—does an excellent job.
If there is any fault in the movie it’s the fact that audiences outside of Los Angeles and New York may not grasp the industry humor and digs at celebrity. When Hollywood makes a movie where it holds a mirror up to itself for a good laugh, it can alienate folks who don’t care about that world.
This is a small thing really in comparison to the exceptional work by the cast and the energetic direction by Inarritu. Birdman is a thrill to watch.