A measure of the quality of a film is its ability to draw you in, to almost make you forget that you're sitting watching something that isn't real and leave you immersed in the lives of the people onscreen. It says everything about the quality of the direction and in particular, the acting of Birdman that I enjoyed it so much that I was almost able to forget that I disagreed with so much of what the film and director/co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu actually had to say. Birdman is pompous, pretentious and pretty great.
Lifting heavily from Michael Keaton's real life, the film concerns Riggan Thomson an actor on the brink, a man who's Hollywood career has long been in decline, making one last attempt at regaining relevancy by staging and starring in a play he has adapted from Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Pouring everything into his work in the hope of finally finding some self-fulfillment, pressure also mounts on Riggan in the needs of everyone around him. There are a lot of plates to keep spinning; being there for his recovering addict daughter Emma Stone, not disappointing ex-wife Amy Ryan, containing the ego of his overshadowing co-star Ed Norton, guiding Naomi Watts through her stressful Broadway debut, selling enough tickets to keep producer, lawyer and "friend" Zach Galifianakis happy and trying not to neglect his current girlfriend Andrea Riseborough. Who wouldn't deal with all that pressure with the occasional imagined conversation with the superhero they used to play?
With the likes of 21 Grams and Babel in his back pocket, Iñárritu is adept at using large, interwoven casts and the film is so engaging when the characters and their various neuroses are playing off each other. Less so when it starts rolling out its various agendas. Iñárritu has many canes to rattle and fists to shake; for the media (Stupid!), popular entertainment (Worthless!) social media (Shallow!) and critics (Cruel! Petty! Jealous! Artless!). Presumably Birdman 2 will provide fascinating insights into modern music (Loud!) and Iñárritu's lawn (Get off it!). The film is simultaneously sour and self-aggrandising; a critic has an unwarranted ego for thinking her views are so significant, failing to see what is really important-art. Art and those who make art are what's really important. Birdman is really important. Still, you can nearly forgive someone for blowing their own trumpet if they're really good at playing the trumpet.
Teaming up with the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Iñárritu put together visuals that are definitely beautiful and serve the story well. Keaton is a man on the brink and everything in the film making reflects that, Birdman is so confined. They make Keaton look positively ancient and cloak everything in darkness and murk while keeping it visually interesting. The film plays out as if directed all in one continuous take, keeping the tension always present as the camera stays with the actors almost constantly. Added to all this is the maddening sound (and occasional sight) of drums on the score, and intrusive and unfocused sound that just piles on the feeling of anxiety. The film's approach is technically impressive but more importantly, justified; in the absence of proper cuts and without ever going very far from the dark and dingy theatre, one might feel just as disorientated and trapped as ol' Michael Keaton, who is, of course, excellent.
Batman was Keaton's most famous role but in that part he was never given enough to do, Birdman on the other hand set's him loose. He's stressed, needy, egotistical, barely faking lucidity. He's on stage acting bad acting and acting good acting. Um, if that makes sense. Keaton has always had a wiry energy and it's captivating to watch him build up so much pressure and so gratifying to watch the release. He's fantastic. Norton put in a good performance too, very believable as a difficult-to-work-with asshole who imposes himself on projects (Keaton's not the only one trading on his real reputation). It would be easy to just leave the character as a broad caricature, but Norton takes a more vulnerable approach in scenes shared with Emma Stone, leaving his character more open-ended. The women in the film put in great performances as well in spite of being a little under-served by the writing. Mostly they're bitches and/or basket cases who all realise how great the noble creative (male) artist is in the end. One woman undergoes a personal trauma that the film mostly glosses over. Two of them make out for no reason at all. Still, lemonade is made out of the lemons. Stone is really great, charismatically surly and especially great in the scene where she lets Keaton have it, believably bursting out years of frustration, but with expressions and body language of regret thrown in at the end. Amy Ryan isn't in the film for very long but shows her skill in that little time, between her and Keaton we get a real sense of a relationship that we're only told about. Her character feels 'lived-in'. Though there are a lot of characters and it's all meant to lead back to Keaton in the end, it's pleasing to see more than one great acting performance even among satellite characters.
It remains to be seen just how kind the Academy will be to Birdman (surely a lock for Best Editing though?) but it's a film that deserves a lot of praise, despite its flaws. Despite the self-seriousness it manages to be genuinely funny and the performances help raise the material. The film is like a maze, both of the bustling backstage of a theatre and of the complicated mindset of a man desperate for recognition. And mazes can occasionally be frustrating but I certainly enjoyed getting lost in this one.
...okay Birdman was right critics are hack frauds disregard