What is Birdman? Birdman is a film where it’s difficult to pin it down to anything – is it a comedy or a drama? Is it cynical or satirical? It’s a film which seems as Meta as a potential Oscar contender can be. Michael Keaton plays a washed up Hollywood actor, famous for playing the titular superhero in a trilogy back in the late eighties and nineties, in the days leading up to the opening performance of his Broadway debut: an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ which he has written, directed and is starring in.
Edward Norton plays Mike Shiner, a method actor and Broadway sensation who perhaps takes the method a little too far (which creates much of the conflict throughout the film). These scenes between Shiner and Keaton’s Riggan Thomson are probably the best as they play off of each other with a delicious rivalry. Thomson doesn’t like Shiner and Shiner certainly doesn’t like Thomson. Even from their first meeting Shiner unnerves Thomson as he has already memorised all of his lines (and all of his co-stars’) and dominates the stage against Thomson. Edward Norton has never won an Oscar, but unfortunately despite delivering an excellent performance of an irritating actor who knows exactly how good he is, it is unlikely that he will get the statuette this time round as JK Simmons and Mark Ruffalo seem to be in front.
Elsewhere in support, Emma Stone could also receive a nod as she plays Sam, Thomson’s long suffering daughter and assistant who has just come out of rehab. Again, her character is a highlight of the film as Stone and Keaton’s scenes are an interesting body of work whilst some quiet moments between her and Norton are just as effective. Zach Galifianakis is excellent as the loyal producer and I would love to have seen more of him. Andrea Riseborough has a smaller but important role as Thomson’s girlfriend but their scenes fail to resonate as much as the rest of the picture. Amy Ryan and Naomi Watts also give good performances though the latter seems to be moved out of the plot as the narrative goes on.
However, the man of the moment is undoubtedly Michael Keaton himself. The film is his story and he gives a complete performance of a madman who you’re not sure is a genius or a fool. It may not be as edgy as Gyllenhaal was in ‘Nightcrawler’, or as unexpected as Fiennes in ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ but should the awards go to Keaton then no one would complain. He is in fantastic form here and he never shies away from the emotional drive Alejandro G. Iñárritu has instigated.
Huge plaudits must also go to Emmanuel Lubezki who, after winning anything and everything for his cinematography on ‘Gravity’ really does create the idea of the stage as a different world, whilst the setting of St James Theatre is maintained through a drumming soundtrack delivered by Antonio Sánchez.
One of the major artistic points in this film is how it sticks to long takes so the action never cuts away, which creates wonderful moments when the camera turns across to see the play in full flow and the audience watching. With a steady hand, the camera helps to make backstage seem narrow and small whilst the stage is wide and delicate. Despite this, I still felt that the film was not quite as out there as I had expected one shot films have been done before and Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’ uses the idea in a different method to create a more interesting effect in my opinion. The ending works but seems out of place, leading to ambiguity on all sides. I think that where ‘Birdman’ is at its best is when it confronts the idea of celebrity, art and acting head on with a moment between Keaton and prominent theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen as much as I would like it to, and this seems to undermine the satirical aspect of the story. The themes are there, but they don’t seem defined while there are some plot threads which seem to fade away as the plot centres even more on Keaton for the final act.
Verdict: ‘Birdman’ is an artistic triumph; it’s one of the films of the year and is largely an excellently directed and performed production. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went into the cinema, but when I came out I felt that it was just missing something – one last moment to really pull the idea off, that moment never came.