Birdman: A quest for true fulfillment

The most memorable scene from Alejandro G. Inarritu’s latest film, Birdman, captures Ed Norton—the star of the David Fincher classic Fight Club and possibly the funniest, truest fighter ever to grace the screen—getting into a fistfight with the original Batman.  This scene alone might have been enough to make me love the movie, even if there weren’t about a hundred other things to help.

My second favorite part of Birdman (subtitled: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) was the drumming.  No, I didn’t accidentally watch Whiplash—my genuine favorite part of the film was the jazzy, free-from-percussion that scored most of the piece.  It was under the unending tracking shots and the anxious dialogue, the fighting, ranting, drinking and desperate ceaseless hoping of the movie’s enthralling three-dimensional characters.

The film is a masterwork—a smart, darkly funny, deeply sad and thoroughly thought-provoking film about art and personality in the modern world.  Michael Keaton plays the main character, Riggan Thomson, a washed-up former Hollywood actor trying to prove to the world that he is more than just a pawn of commercialism by adapting, directing and starring in a Raymond Carver Broadway drama.  Thomson’s claim to fame is, ironically, the same as Keaton’s: he used to play a superhero named Birdman who could fly and uses a deep, gravelly voice to speak (sound familiar?).  But if Keaton took the role because he felt any sincere connection to Thomson’s character, I feel bad for the guy.  Thomson is not just past his prime, but mentally unstable, delusional even, and deeply invested in his image.  Perhaps the most depressing scene, out of all the depressing scenes in this dark, dark movie, is the one where Thomson pitifully expresses to his teary-eyed ex-wife his fears of being overshadowed: “Farrah Fawcett died the exact same day as Michael Jackson.  Did you know that?  Isn’t that crazy?”

Birdman’s overwhelmingly positive critical reception has certainly been aided by stellar performances from a star-studded cast.  Apart from Keaton’s mind-bending lead role, which may likely land him his first Oscar nomination and perhaps even the win, Norton adds yet another incredible performance to his prodigious career in the role of Mike Shiner, Thomson’s arrogant, problematic, smarmy, brilliant supporting actor.  Emma Stone plays Thomson’s punchy daughter and personal assistant, straight out of rehab.  Naomi Watts is touchingly vulnerable in her role as Shiner’s co-star and part-time lover Lesley.  An unexpectedly real performance by comedian Zach Galifanakis, who plays Thomson’s best friend and lawyer, rounds out an ensemble effort rivaling that of last year’s American Hustle, perhaps even more intense and organic.

Thanks to the work of master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who was director of photography for Gravity as well), the entire movie appears to have been shot in one take, with the transitions edited seamlessly through the use of long tracking shots.  It’s this style of free-form realism that immerses the viewer completely in Inarritu’s story, the illusion of ease created by painstaking craftsmanship.  The movie also appears to have been shot in about one-tenth of a square mile of space—just the theater, the streets of Broadway around it, and the bar next door.  This lends even greater symbolic significance to the set pieces woven skillfully in and out of the frame by Lubezki, like the ominous larger-than-life marquee of Thomson’s face looming large over some of his most important discussions, literally directly over his head.

The movie’s plot and themes are too complex and telling to give away in this review, so if you want specifics my strong suggestion is to see the movie!  People are talking about Interstellar as the “revolutionary” film of the year, but I beg to differ.  Birdman is a different kind of movie altogether. At the end of the film, a New York Times critic, played with refreshing wit and complexity by Laura Duncan calls Thomson’s play an example of  “superrealism.”  That’s just what Birdman is—surreal, self-critical, brilliantly executed art at its realest.

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