Overview: The former star of a hit superhero film series attempts to resurrect his career on Broadway. Fox Searchlight Pictures; 2014; Rated R; 119 Minutes.
In Flight: The theatrical production at the center of Birdman‘s plot is a stage adaptation of the famous short story by Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. This piece of short literature is among the most famous in the American canon and it has been endlessly discussed and analyzed since its initial publication a half century ago. Any great filmmaker could have leaned softly on the every-present allusion to Carver’s story and allowed the viewer to apply those decades of analysis as a decoder lens pointed at Birdman‘s themes and this would have been seen as a skilled directorial decision. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu doesn’t do that. When Iñárritu positions his main character Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) to directly explain why he’s chosen this particular author’s work as his comeback effort, he is a filmmaker delicately sewing in an extra quilt patch where even the best filmmakers probably couldn’t make it fit. This compound layer of insight doesn’t make the point heavy-handed; this isn’t a director force-feeding understanding to his audience. Somehow, Riggan’s explanation adds more lightness and life to the character study.
Iñárritu’s script holds this baffling and assured narrative grace from start to finish, through dramatic tones, comedic home-runs, and meta-awareness that swims between parody and celebration. Birdman is a story about the modern human ego and the role it plays in everyday life, in Hollywood, on Broadway, and within the contemporary world of viral fame. To investigate the ego Iñárritu applies both sophomoric philosophical reference and symbolic form. Ego, here, might take the shape of a goofy bird costume, a marked up roll of toilet paper, a defensive and crotchety critic, a literal erect penis. But even in the awkwardness of their manifested forms, none of these symbols are obstructive. There isn’t a missed step to witness. At every turn, Birdman is accomplishing what it needs to: an all at once hilarious, sympathetic, and fascinating storyline.
How Did We End Up Here: That commendable seamlessness isn’t limited to the narrative journey, but also noteworthy within the form of the film. Iñárritu and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have filmed and edited their movie so that it is presented mostly as one continuous shot, even as the story jumps over the span of days. Never does the movie bend toward this technique. The joints are hidden and the method just adds an electric kinetic energy to the rest of the film. I’ve said it before (more than once): no one uses his/her camera in pursuit as well as Lubezki. With Birdman, he takes another step ahead of his peers.
This is the third movie I’ve seen this year that stands atop an experimental approach to filming and editing. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby and Boyhood were also both built by an innovative approach, but Birdman is the first to rise wholly above its own novelty to the point that the gimmick serves the movie and not the other way around.
“A Candle Burning at Both Ends”: It’s still early in the year, but there’s a good chance Birdman will end up as the best film of 2014. It is a rare thing when a film aims this high and makes contact with its target (think a humble, pop-culture savvy Synechdoche, New York). When that happens, one of the more useful side effects is an examination of Movie Awards Season and our perception of its value. From Antonio Sanchez’s naked and jazzy drumline score to Keaton’s brilliant comeback performance, Birdman should be a major contender for every award ceremony in every category for which it is eligible. If it isn’t… well that’s certainly a reason for pause.