BIRDMAN (2014)

One-line review: Unhinged, without missing a beat.

After you watch Birdman, you are not sure whether to bawl, guffaw, go silent, or go rogue. But you know you’ve been in the presence of explosive greatness: the kind that happens only when the creative process is jointly ruled by the mind and heart, with both operating at their peak.

This is director Alejandro Iñárritu’s crazy passion project, and that’s all many cast and crew had to work with before committing to the project. Ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who got his second Oscar win for the film), says Iñárritu was unable to verbalize the film except with a bird in flight, and Lubezki was initially terrified Iñárritu would ask him to join this crazy project. The premise of the film is the Raymond Carver quote that appears in the beginning that each one of us wants to call ourselves beloved and feel beloved on this earth. Juxtapose this with the birdman in all of us, at once fierce friend and foe, whose constant banter can make us soar or sink; and we have the universal human struggle.

The film shows us fading former superhero Birdman star Riggan Thomson’s (Michael Keaton) last attempt to redeem himself as an artist with merit. He is writing, directing, and starring in the Broadway interpretation of Raymond Carver’s play. He is surrounded by equally insecure people, the fragile yet ambitious actress Lesley (Naomi Watts), unstable girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough), barely in control lawyer agent Jake (Zack Galifianakis), long-suffering but understanding ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), and fresh out of rehab and angry daughter Sam (Emma Thomson). The going is already tough with the opening looming large, poor ticket sales, relationship problems, a poor lead actor, and Riggan’s self-doubt. Add to this mix a last-minute replacement, superstar theater actor Mike Shiner (Ed Norton), a self-absorbed, insecure yet true artist. His high-handedness upsets the already fragile balance, sending everyone flying in all directions, and sometimes into each other’s arms.

The show must go on despite the kitchen sinks thrown at Riggan Thomson from all directions, he must accept that the new actor Mike will upstage him but will be good for the project, and that feared critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) will tear his play apart because she thinks a sell-out like him is violating Broadway’s scared stage. We live through Riggan’s self-inflicted and other inflicted ups and mostly downs until it’s finally opening night. Riggan then puts up a show no one will forget for the rest of their lives, winning over even Tabitha. But is it too much, too late?

The plot sounds straightforward but throw in Riggan’s self-doubt appearing in the form of Birdman, his ego taking flight in the streets of NYC (one of the hilarious scenes is him confidently landing after a flight and walking away as an angry cab driver runs after him for the fare). As a reviewer points out a good film may have at most one or two scenes for the ages, but Birdman has at least ten. Riggan destroying his room, his daughter’s angry outburst, a half-naked Riggan walking through Times Square, Mike Shiner’s real erection on stage, or his meltdown in front of a live preview audience, Mike’s no holds barred fight with Riggan, the list goes on. The scenes zigzag, unsettling you with loud drumbeats, immediately followed by soothing uplifting classical melodies, a sublime decision, but one that cost composer and drummer Antonio Sanchez a deserving Oscar nomination for original score. Growing up in Mexico City, Sanchez was introduced to world music by the then-popular Mexican DJ, Iñárritu (who knew?).

Birdman would just be Iñárritu’s flight of fancy without its cast’s stellar performances. Michael Keaton’s pain in the film echoes his struggle to inhabit such a multifaceted complex role. That was a lot of dialogue for an old man to learn, jokes Zach Galifianakis. Keaton is a tightly coiled spring that can snap anytime but somehow holds itself together. Edward Norton is perhaps the most perfectly cast and treads the fine balance between jerk and stupid. Emma Thomson’s eyes almost pop out of her already intense face, she’s a candle burning at both ends like Norton points out, yet impossible to take your eyes off. To get the long takes, the actors rehearsed for three weeks before shooting, Norton says the film fell into place after Keaton somewhere in between began inhabiting his part. An equally important casting coup is the sound of drums, which heightens the film’s unsettling feel.  

Like any true observation about human nature, every flawed character in the film has redeeming moments. Including the unbearably annoying narcissistic Norton, who is most intuitive in recognizing a fellow artist, Riggan’s struggle and defends him before a critic and his daughter. Even the biased critic knows a good performance when she sees it. Keaton endures slaps, apologizes, and sacrifices for the sake of art. Birdman is fortunate to get the recognition it deserves right at its release because it’s not for the faint of heart or for those with preconceived notions about films. It makes you think before rushing to judgment about art; like Norton’s character asks the critic, Tabitha, tomorrow Riggan will be risking everything and putting his heart out in front of thousands, what will you be doing?    

Why you must watch it. To see how art gives you wings.       

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