Michael Keaton returns to the big screen in an Oscar-worthy fashion
The lives of actors and their love of theater tends to be relatively common story in Hollywood. Screenwriters live in that world, occupying a profession where everything is riding on one idea, or one presentation, or one last shot. This spills over into the portrayals of other occupations as well—try to count the number of plots that hinge on successfully completing a presentation or meeting that will make or break the dreams of the main character.
The real world doesn’t work this way. Most people do their jobs and go home, livelihoods relatively stable beneath the slings and arrows of uncontrollable market forces. Screenwriters and actors live through controlling their own destiny. It’s understandable that so many stories focus on this aspect. The life of a performer, it seems, is highly stressful and prone to mental illness. “Birdman: Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” once again works through these themes.
It is a wonderful ride, with reality-breaking experiences and powerful displays of emotion. Watching this film, one couldn’t help but be reminded of another film from a few years ago that told a similar story, just with a darker tone and a different art (ballet). But we are a species of storytellers, a people who are comforted by the familiar. While the story of “Birdman” is not necessarily unique, the structure of the film is enough to give the audience a truly rare experience.
“Birdman” is the story of downfall, of relevance, and a struggle for redemption through serious work. Riggan Thomason (Michael Keaton) is a former blockbuster movie star, one of the first to don a cape and cowl for the superhero genre. We learn that he sold millions of tickets, starred in three movies featuring his titular character, and was something of a sensation in the early ’90s. Of course, we can’t help but remember Keaton as he was, the face of Batman for a generation, and wonder if the tale is somewhat autobiographical. Many would argue that Michael Keaton has been more than successful away from Gotham City (myself included), but there is still that nagging feeling that he peaked in 1989.
Riggan appears to be suffering from a form of schizophrenia, hearing the voice of his other self, the one that saved the world, encouraging him to return to his roots as an action star. But Riggan has other plans—he has sunk his entire life’s fortune into a Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” He is attempting real theater—something lasting, something important, something far away from the action-packed explosions of the big screen. But the play is fraught with problems. His finances are in shambles, his actors are impossible, and his mind is failing.
There is a significant amount of commentary on the value of art, the power of critics, and the need for admiration. Much like “Black Swan,” the striving for perfection and adulation pulls reality apart at the seams. Many of these ideas have been discussed and rehashed in other works, and here the conclusions are generally the same.
But where the film, along with director Alejandro González Iñárritu, succeeds is in its technical prowess. The experience of watching “Birdman” is almost the same as watching a live performance. The film feels like it is being told in one take; each scene moves seamlessly into the next, following each character through doors, on and off stage, while the passage of time is marked only by what is happening in between. Ostensibly, the film is happening in real time, but the action takes place over the course of four performances—three previews and opening night.
The continuous movement from event to event, without obvious cuts or camera changes, makes the film exciting and the buildup to the climax more and more nerve-wracking. Performances are top tier all around. Keaton always delivers, and he is complemented well by Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Emma Stone. Yet it’s the execution, the editing and the direction that makes the film stand out as one of this year’s best.
“Birdman: Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” lacks the emotional resonance of similar films like “Black Swan,” due to the comedic elements of the script. This is not a weakness, however, as the goals of the films are entirely different. “Birdman” revels more in the strangeness of a fractured reality rather than the tragedy of it. In fact, it drops plenty of hints that this broken version is more real than the normal one.
Whatever the interpretation, “Birdman” is certain to receive an Oscar nod or two.