Just how to explain the exhilarating experience in seeing Birdman, Alejandro G. Innaritu’s masterpiece? The one word that kept flitting through my brain was audacious–he takes many risks, and almost all of them pay off, in profound and thrilling ways. While the film isn’t perfect, it is so chock full of life and language (perhaps too full–multiple viewings are probably required to absorb it all) and I can’t think of another film that has attempted such a feat.
The plot is fairly simple. An actor (Michael Keaton), once famous for a series of superhero movies, attempts to validate his career by writing, directing, and starring in a play on Broadway (it is an adaptation of the Raymond Carver story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”). Theater geeks will enjoy the frenetic pace as the show heads into previews. An actor needs to be replaced, something goes wrong at every preview (such as when Keaton gets locked out of the theater and has to make a mad dash through Times Square in his underwear), his co-star (Andrea Riseborough), who is also his girlfriend, announces she is pregnant, and his daughter (Emma Stone), just out of rehab, works as his assistant and gives him dagger eyes at every opportunity (and those eyes are big).
But this is not a typical backstage farce. The first image we see of Keaton he is levitating in a lotus position, and has powers of telepathy. Are these real, or just the powers of Birdman, left over in his psyche. The actor who needs to be replaced is felled by a falling klieg light, which Keaton takes credit for. His producer and best friend, Zack Galifinakis, tries to hold things together, and they manage to hire a bad boy of the theater, Edward Norton (who happens to be sleeping with the other co-star, Naomi Watts). Norton is a classic narcissist and method actor (he drinks real gin on stage, and sports an erection during a bedroom scene), but is at constant odds with Keaton, especially when Norton sidles up to Stone.
Innaritu, after establishing that reality isn’t quite what we think it is (in addition to telepathy, Keaton hears the voice of Birdman himself, a devil on his shoulder) the film appears to be in one long take, with tracking shots the order of the day. This gives the film an urgent pace, and also makes it like one of those “make up your own story” books, as the camera may follow a different character. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione make this look just great, and accompanied by a jazz drum score by Antonio Sanchez, the whole thing is just electrifying.
But the film, for all it’s gimmicks, does get to the heart of the matter, and that is the redemption of a man, Keaton. He was a bad father, a bad husband, and maybe not a good actor. He cashed in on three Birdman films (he turned down Birdman 4) and now wants to justify his worth. He chooses Carver because he got a note passed back to him by the writer at a college play in Syracuse, although Norton points out that he was probably drunk (and Norton later steals the story). The last act of the film veers from suicidal impulses to glory, and then combines the two.
The script is credited to four writers, including Innaritu, and it is a marvel. The dialogue comes so fast and furious I can’t quote it directly–there’s a great bit when Keaton asks about replacements. “What about Woody Harrelson?” “He’s doing the Hunger Games.” “Michael Fassbender?” “He’s doing the prequel to the sequel of X-Men.” “Jeremy Renner?” “Who?” There are many references to current pop culture, such as when Keaton recounts being on a plane with George Clooney that experiences significant turbulence, and he thinks that if the plane goes down it will be Clooney’s face on page one, not his. A scene late in the picture, when Keaton has it out with the New York Times critic (Lindsay Duncan), who has sworn to destroy his play, even if she hasn’t scene it yet, is classic dialogue.
Keaton, who has been languishing for years in oddball projects, is a revelation. Though his casting is a bit meta, considering he was a comic book star twenty years ago, the performance owes more to Beetlejuice than Batman, as he is called upon to be manic often. I loved a scene in which he destroys his dressing room (through telepathy), and then Galifinakis enters. “Hey, what’s up?” Keaton says, as if is nothing is wrong.
The rest of the cast is great, too. I loved Naomi Watts as a woman finally making her Broadway debut and wincing at everything seems to be falling apart, and Norton is a sly scene-stealer, an obnoxious heel who reveals he is only truthful on stage. And Stone, wow, after seeing her in so many Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm roles it was great to see her stretch and play someone fairly unlikable (though hot). Amy Ryan has a few good scenes as Keaton’s ex-wife.
I will nitpick a bit about the supporting characters. Norton and Watts are not given complete character arcs–they fade away in the last act. There’s a lesbian kiss that comes straight out of left field and is never mentioned again. But I dare say I won’t see a more original film this year, and right now Birdman is battling it out with The Grand Budapest Hotel as my favorite film of the year. What do they have in common? Originality.
My grade for Birdman: A.