Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson
Edward Norton as Mike Shiner
Emma Stone as Sam Thomson
Zach Galifianakis as Jake
Naomi Watts as Lesley
Amy Ryan as Sylvia
Andrea Riseborough as Laura
Lindsay Duncan as Tabitha
Paula Pell as Lady in Bar
David Fierro as Man in Bar
Hudson Flynn as Kid in Bar (Billy)
Warren Kelly as Dresser
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
On the surface, “Birdman” explores the inner turmoil among the cast of a new Broadway play based on Raymond Carver, the passion project of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a Hollywood actor best known for his role in a blockbuster superhero franchise. As the production faces all sorts of adversity, including the arrival of hotshot Broadway actor Mike Shiner (Ed Norton), Thomson tries to come to terms with his dark inner thoughts that threaten to completely derail his own psyche.
You’ve never seen a movie like “Birdman,” the latest film from “Babel” and “Biutiful” director Alejandro Inarritu and you’re not bound to see anything like it again. It’s the type of movie that can be (and almost demands to be) watched multiple times to decipher all its various layers, but it’s also one that can be enjoyed for its surface pleasures as well.
At the film’s core is a stunning performance by Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, an actor who has reached a turning point in his life and career, finally doing something for the sake of art by funding a play based on Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The first time we see Riggan, he seems to be floating in the air. When he’s called to stage for a dress rehearsal, the production problems begin as a stage light falls on the head of one of the actors, forcing them to find a replacement days before the play is supposed to open for previews. As it turns out, one of Broadway’s top stars Mike Shiner, played by Edward Norton, wants to be a part of the show, but he creates immediate friction with Riggan as he wants to make changes and throws tantrums before a live preview audience.
Also in the mix is Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who he’s hired as his personal assistant to keep out of trouble after getting out of rehab, but like everyone else around Riggan, she’s constantly putting pressure on him with their demands and questions.
Regardless of how much of the film’s plot I may describe, it’s likely to sound like a fairly dull premise. That be as it may, the film’s intricately layered, virtually impeccable screenplay and the way it’s interpreted by Inarritu’s cast is captured by a camera that wanders freely around New York’s St. James Theater, the film’s primary setting, letting the characters introduce themselves and their relationship with Riggan through dialogue. Using many long unedited shots (or at least creating the illusion that’s the case), Inarritu’s camera seems to have little semblance of time or space as it moves time forward at a brisk pace while also traversing the line between reality and fantasy. One could easily draw comparisons between “Birdman” and the first twenty minutes of Baz Lurhmann’s “Moulin Rouge,” in that it takes some time to adjust to that brisk pace and the amount of information being thrown at you.
We follow Riggan backstage as he interacts with the different people in his life, including his estranged wife played by Amy Ryan and back on stage for the play at various points in its run. Every once in a while, the focus shifts to other characters like Norton’s brash stage actor who feels he’s “saving” Riggan’s play from itself. Other times, we’re alone with Riggan, watching him fight with his inner self, personified by a dark booming voice that pushes him to use his telekinetic powers (which may or may not be in his mind). That central conflict finally explodes as the camera finally exits the theater and voyages out through the streets and skies of New York City in an amazing display of visual FX, which adds to the type of movie magic that makes one want to try to dissect exactly how it was done, much like last year’s “Gravity” by Inarritu’s “amigo” Alfonso Cuaron.
Needless to say, Keaton is giving the performance of his career playing the role of a lifetime, one that purposefully draws comparisons to parts of his own career, while still staying well in the world of fiction. Keaton is surrounded by so many astounding supporting performances by Norton and Stone, who are also terrific in their three key scenes together, as well as Ryan who shows up to balance the funny scenes with more dramatic weight. It would be a shame not to give special mention to the performances by Andrea Riseborough, whose few key sequences show her wide range playing an actress in the play that’s very different from anything she’s done before, as well as Zach Galafianakis as Riggan’s lawyer/manager who delivers his lines in a way that’s funny without seeming like he’s doing a schtick.
As much information there is to digest, the film is genuinely funny, particularly its biting commentary on everything to do with Hollywood and Broadway, including stodgy and bitter theater critics in the form of actress Lindsay Duncan, herself a stage veteran. This aspect of the film creates a number of interesting similarities and parallels to other movies that have played on the festival circuit, like the shared viewpoint on the pervasiveness of superhero films satirized in Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria.” Even with the snippets we see of it, the Raymond Carver play at the center of the movie feels more dramatic and interesting than anything in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice.”
The Bottom Line:
For some, “Birdman” may be hard to wrap one’s head around, but it’s pure cinema that elicits so many (possibly conflicting) adjectives with its enigmatic yet powerful and almost magical journey. It’s easily one of the most thought-provoking films of the past ten years, maybe more.
Birdman closes the 52nd New York Film Festival tonight, October 11, before opening in select cities on Friday, October 17.