Twenty-five years ago, Michael Keaton (“Beetlejuice”) made a reputation for himself by portraying an iconic superhero and the role of “Batman” has been a highlight of Keaton’s career.
Academy Award nominated actor Edward Norton (“American History X”) has something of a reputation of being an actor who really immerses himself into any role he steps into and isn’t afraid to ruffle a few feathers while refining his craft.
In the latest film from Academy Award nominated director Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Babel,” “Biutiful”), both Keaton and Norton portray characters who are practically mirrored images of themselves.
Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, a washed up actor known for playing an iconic superhero known as Birdman who has invested all of the fortune he has left into a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Riggan stars, directs, produces and has written the adaptation but when one of the cast members suffers an “accident,” Riggan brings on a veteran Broadway thespian in Norton’s character Mike.
“Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” is a film that feels as if Iñárritu, who co-wrote the script with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo, tailored the film just for the strengths of both the lead and supporting actor while giving significant attention to the supporting cast including Emma Stone (“Easy A”), Zack Galifianakis (“The Hangover”), Amy Ryan (“Changeling”), Andrea Riseborough (“Never Let Me Go”), Naomi Watts (“The Impossible), Lindsay Duncan (“Alice in Wonderland”) and Merritt Wever (“Michael Clayton”).
Iñárritu bringing Academy Award winning cinematography Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity”) on board for this project was definitely a bold and wise decision. The camera motions and movements that follow the characters through the St. James Theater in Times Square and even into the streets of New York itself it is so seamless in its use of the long-take that one can hardly tell if there is any editing at all in the picture; the action played out on the screen is so fluid it is as if the camera can be moved by the slightest touch and everything is so visually grand.
Another high point of “Birdman” has to be the heavy usage of the percussion score by Antonio Sanchez. The jazzy and upbeat use of the drums throughout the film gives it this improvisation-type resonance that hearkens back to a French New Wave classic, yet it feels so modern as it is used to illustrate the frame of mind of the plot and it gives the film a distinct quality that no other feature does.
Essentially, “Birdman” is a film about actors and perceptions and it doesn’t get more to that point any more than the two characters of Michael Keaton’s Riggan and Edward Norton’s Mike, both of whom give exemplary performances because these roles are so similar to their celebrity status.
In Riggan, audiences see a man struggling to manage his mess he calls a life, wrestling with the phantoms of his past as Birdman, flexing his private telekinetic powers and desperately attempting to ensure that his play, his biggest gamble, is a success and it is because Riggan may as well be playing Michael Keaton, who embarks to rejuvenate his career by taking a chance on this film and in the end, he gives the best performance of his career to date. Heck, watching him get locked out of the theater only to trek through Times Square in his tighty-whities with his wig in his hand to get back in the theater through the front door and walk through the audience to finish the scene of the preview alone should tell audiences that Keaton is truly committed to this character, a character who is eager to put his superheroic past behind him and devote his energies into a serious performance and it all pays off for him
Then we have Mike, who is actually Edward Norton who is flexing his muscles as a dedicated thespian who isn’t afraid to agitate the cast and crew with his antics and his diva-esque persona but in the end, he brings in crowds, he makes money and he does all of this because he can put on a damn good show.
The supporting cast of Galifianakis, Stone, Ryan, Riseborough, Watts, Duncan, Weaver get appropriate time on screen and they are all respectfully decent.
The problem with “Birdman” is determining where the source of its artistic and cinematic success truly lies. The picture is a fluid and entertaining spectacle, but is it accredited with the director’s vision, the screenwriting team’s fresh and modern take on acting and the perceptions of certain actors, or the acting of Keaton, Norton and the rest of the cast, Lubezki’s rare and distinct cinematic eye or the editing of Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione? “Birdman” has artistic and entertainment value but it is difficult to peg who the artist is in this film.
“Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” is a film of fine quality. It has great acting, it has visual appeal, solid direction, writing that is sharp and contemporary and it is a piece that will leave audiences impressed.