“Birdman” Movie Review

     It doesn’t happen often, but once in a while a film comes along that establishes its own unmistakable identity.  A film that excels in its originality, but also unfolds within a style and being all its own.  Writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's (“21 Grams”, “Babel”) “Birdman” successfully achieves these qualities and more with a taut and hypnotic look inside its lead character, as well as the drama and logistical effort needed to stage a Broadway production.  Inarritu’s camera glides about the proceedings in and out of rooms and around the characters with each scene carefully choreographed and combined into what amounts to a continuous 120 minute free flowing shot.  It’s as if Inarritu isn’t exactly directing, rather he is following along like a documentarian, hoping to catch something juicy on his always rolling camera and when he sees something he likes better, he simply moves toward it.  Brian DePalma utilized this style for what I believe was the first 8 minutes or so of his 1998 film “Snake Eyes”, but likely abandoned it in favor of more common and expected methods of scene construction and editing.  Inarritu takes it all the way and “Birdman” benefits to the tune of becoming a sure fire awards contender.

     The story is about the thirst for career renaissance and a return to relevance for its lead character, Riggan Thomas, played in top form by Michael Keaton.  As we find out early in the film, Riggan was once the man behind the mask in a successful blockbuster superhero movie franchise called “Birdman”.  After being lavished with money and fame, Riggan has floundered over the past several decades and has been unable to find his way with the film industry.  It’s never really said, but it is implied Riggan has failed greatly since turning down a fourth “Birdman” film in favor of perhaps more artistic projects.  After a failed marriage and constant trouble connecting with his drug addict daughter, Riggan has decided to reinvent himself by writing, directing, and acting in a Broadway play called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and Inarritu’s screenplay begins in Riggan’s dressing room on the day of the play’s first preview night.

     Scenes involving Riggan often switch between reality and his daydreaming that involve the voice of his “Birdman” character from the past motivating him to succeed in the present.  It’s as if there’s a constant battle between good and evil going on in his head virtually every minute of the day, conflicting him in his decision making and his ability to deliver a successful play.  When a freak stage accident results in losing the play’s co-lead, an occurrence he tells his lawyer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis), was his doing, the production lands a replacement named Mike (Edward Norton) by way of another of the actor’s ongoing romantic relationship with him.  Riggan and Mike immediately match wits during rehearsal as both find they share a certain intensity and dedication to their craft, especially in a well written and expertly acted scene in which they verbally fine tune a key sequence within the play.

     There’s plenty of drama going on within the production as various relationships between the actors and the supporting crew culminate within the confines of their Broadway venue the St. James Theater.  Mike provides an instant jolt of credibility to the cast as he boasts of an extensive stage career and is favored by the very critics who can make or break a new production.  Egos immediately clash however, as Riggan and Mike butt heads in their respective styles and yet Riggan is the play’s financier and demands everything be done his way.  Riggan is also dealing with his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), who is working as his assistant after completing a recent drug rehab.  She proves to be a constant thorn in his side as he is constantly reminded by her of the fact he wasn’t around much during her childhood.  There is also Lesley (Naomi Watts), who plays the female lead in the play and struggles with her relationship with Mike, especially after an incident in which he takes his technique for getting into his role a little too far.  Somehow, the group survives the play’s series of preview nights and Inarritu allows the film to flow smoothly into the third act in which several of the earlier plot devices culminate into a thrilling and unexpected conclusion.

     The irony of Keaton playing a character who previously starred in a masked superhero franchise some 25 years ago can’t be ignored.  It’s a nifty piece of casting by the filmmakers and a role that just may land Keaton a Best Actor nomination based on his tour de force performance.  The cast that supports him is nearly as good, especially Edward Norton and Emma Stone during scenes in which they both interact with Keaton and with each other.  The script, written by Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo, puts forth scene after scene of solid dialogue, allowing the actors to sound like real people dealing with real issues.  It’s clear the cast of a stage production spend an enormous amount of time together and Inarritu effectively stages every scene with a supremely realistic authenticity.  With the setting so strong and the film possessing such an original editing style, the actors simply needed to be at the top of their respective games and they delivered.  For some, the constant movement from reality to Riggan’s imagined episodes of grandeur may prove to be somewhat abstract and therefore harder to accept, but what I believe Inarritu has set out to accomplish is a complete dissection of one’s mind to a point where the audience sees and understands just how difficult it is when you realize you are no longer relevant and life has effectively passed you by.  GRADE: A