Birdman is a film I’ve sort of struggled to review. It’s not because I don’t know what I think about it, but quite the reverse. I knew exactly what I thought about it coming out of it the first time and haven’t felt the need to write about it for that reason. I believe it is a great film, and I’m really routing for it in terms of Oscars. If it does come down to Birdman vs. Boyhood this Oscar season, which it looks like it is, there’s no question in my mind of which film should take it. Maybe Boyhood is more like real life, but Birdman has the excitement of cinema.
Birdman is the story of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), and his quest for artistic respect and critical acclaim. In the ’90s, he played a superhero called Birdman, and ever since opting out of Birdman IV, has failed to find the kind of popular adoration he once received. To try and win this, he adapts, directs, and stars in a play version of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The film takes us through the preview performances and opening night, when the pressure finally gets to Riggan.
Let me just talk about the casting of this film. It’s genius. Obviously casting a former Batman actor is incredibly fitting for Riggan, and whether or not Keaton is looking for the same sort of artistic respect his character is, he’s definitely achieved it with this movie. Ed Norton gets into a fight, which brought me back to Fight Club. Naomi Watts’ character really wants to make it as an actress and ends up making out with a brunette on the way; Mulholland Drive anyone? This doesn’t contribute to the film a ton, but it is a great bunch of casting choices, backed up by the fact that everybody, and I mean every single person, even the actress who plays the stage manager that I’ve never seen before, holds their own in this movie while working together as an ensemble. The SAG ensemble cast award was definitely deserved here. Rounding out the cast is Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter, Amy Ryan as his ex-wife, Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s hilarious best friend/producer, and Andrea Riseborough as the other actress in the play as well as Riggan’s mistress.
If the film has one fault it’s that it’s a little too on the nose at times. While I suppose one could argue that artists may be a little bit more introspective than most people, it still feels a little bit unrealistic to have people talk about their feelings and struggles so openly at times and so well. The quote I chose from this film is a great example. It’s a great line, but it seems strange that Ed Norton’s character, or really anyone, would just say that very perceptive observation so off the cuff. However, it still gives way to some great lines, and it’s not a huge problem in my eyes compared to the greatness of everything else here. (I’m also not a fan of the critic character here, mostly because prejudging a piece of art is exactly what a critic should NOT do, and even if it’s not as demanding as art itself in most cases, it does cost something to go against the grain of a popular opinion which critics have to do if they’re being honest and doing their jobs, but that’s more of a personal thing and the character works well in the film nonetheless.)
The real star here though, is unquestionably the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki. He’s definitely one of the most accomplished cinematographers working today, and I’m really rooting for him come February. The film is shot the way Hitchcock’s Rope and Under Capricorn are, in a way that simulates one long take. The rationale on trying to accomplish this for Rope was to simulate how one would view a play, given that Rope was originally a play. Obviously, involving the production of a play, it makes sense to use this for Birdman just on this level. It works better here than it does in Rope for several reasons. One, it actually involves the characters in the movie putting on a play, so the theatrical connection is more apparent. Two, the characters are working around the clock, getting very little sleep, and just generally emotionally strung out and exhausted for the whole movie. Having no cuts ratchets up this exhaustion in the audience as well; we don’t get the traditional relief of cutting between scenes. Third, with modern technology, Lubezki is not limited to ten minute shots like Hitchcock was on his films. This means that overall, the place where they do cut are not as noticeable, because don’t have to search around for something completely dark to cut (though some of this is pretty evident in a few spots, overall it’s a lot less jarring). Fourth, Birdman is not contained in one location so we can see the camera move up and down stairs, on the roof, outside on the street, and other buildings which is all around more impressive. To say I absolutely love the cinematography in this movie is an understatement. It’s a rare example of a gimmick actually serving the story, and of course the nerd in me loves that they improved on what Hitchcock experimented with like sixty years ago.
I may have spent a disproportionate amount of my review on the cinematography, but that is honestly my favorite part of the film. Not that the other things aren’t great as well. The commentary on art might not break tons of new ground, but Birdman has a very perceptive way of going about it. This movie will all of a sudden will hit you with a truth about art that makes you go “oh, I guess I knew that but I never could vocalize it that well.” The energy of this film is just fantastic. It’s going, going, going all the time, bringing you into the exhaustion the characters must feel. This is a great, great movie, and for the Oscars this year I’m team Birdman all the way.
“Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.”
Long story short: 4/4 stars