‘Birdman’ (FILM REVIEW)


As moviegoers, we’ve been burned so many times by buzz that many of us are left jaded and wary of the pre-release hype machine. It’s hard, really, to take these things seriously anymore. Personally, I add to this mix my natural inclination towards cynical skepticism about anything that anyone tells me is a definite must-see. So while I’ve been intrigued about the concept of Birdman since the trailer debuted, I still went into the movie with a bit of a chip on my shoulder, viewing the film behind squinted eyes and with a sideways glance.

I’m telling this for a purpose. The hype is real. The buzz is worthy. To put it simply, and in no uncertain terms, Birdman is, without a doubt, the best movie of the year. Hands down. Forget the risk of over-hype: To call it a masterwork is to scratch the surface of its brilliance and beauty.

I’ve never exactly been what you might call “a fan” of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s work; Babel was good; Biutiful was decent; 21 Grams was watchable, if not heavy-handed. But really, nothing outside of his breakout movie Amores Perros has really captured my attention and won me over.

With Birdman, however, Inarritu has pushed the boundaries of both narrative and technique and delivered a movie that feels more like a piece of fine art than, perhaps, any other film in recent memory. It’s a simple enough story on the surface — an actor who sits right on the verge of being a washed up has been attempts to revitalize his career with a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story — that becomes a satire of celebrity culture, a critique of Hollywood, and an ode to art and the artistic process.

Michael Keaton plays the role of the would-be has been, Riggan, best known for his work in a popular superhero franchise (the titular Birdman) that he walked away from two decades ago. Aging and on the verge of going broke, he sees the superstar superheroes of today and laments their billion-dollar, multi-picture deals that keep them both in the spotlight and the money while he struggles to hold on to any semblance of relevance.

This, of course, mirrors Keaton’s own experience as Batman in the Tim Burton films from the late ’80s and early ’90s. Ostensibly, this is the draw for Birdman. How meta is that, right?! But the rabbit hole is deeper than you can possibly imagine.

While the character of Riggan is somewhat of a tongue-in-cheek mirroring of Keaton’s own ups and downs as an actor, the struggles of the character’s life are mirrored by the struggles he has in an attempt to open his play, which is itself is a metaphor for Riggan’s sense of loss over his career and status, as he plays a character whose wife leaves him for another man.

The age old question of whether art imitates life or life imitates art is rendered irrelevant thanks to a masterful script by Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo. While the general consensus for this question is that both art and life are each mirrors in their own right, the entire conceit is turned upside. Rather than ask “which is the truer mirror,” Birdman instead turns both mirrors toward each other to create a dizzying and stunning meta-critique of the question itself.

This is achieved in no small way due to the amazing camera work provided by Emmanuel Lubezki, fresh off an Academy Award for his work on Gravity. Lubezki has made a name for himself for some of the most jaw-dropping tracking shots of the modern era. There was, of course, the masterful 14-minute shot that opened Gravity; then, of course, there was the seven-minute shot in a war zone in Children of Men. Both of these incredible achievements are dwarfed, however, and made to look like child’s play in Birdman. The majority of the film is presented as a single, flawless, well-choreographed take. There’s a brief metaphorical overture as we see a falling star racing towards Earth; then the movie cuts to Keaton in his dressing room, and the next cut doesn’t come until the film’s dénouement, almost two hours later.

It would have been easy for this to come across as gimmicky or masturbatory, but instead it only adds to the frenetic intensity of theater life, as Riggan races to complete rehearsals and open his play and, hopefully, revitalize his career. It’s not only a testament to Lubezki’s skill with a camera but also to Inarritu’s directorial abilities and the talent of his cast.

And the cast is talented. Beyond Keaton — who gives the single most award-worthy performance anyone has ever given — not a single actor wastes their talents in this film. Edward Norton’s Mike (whose on set shenanigans and reputation as a difficult actor mirrors Norton’s own reputation) is a fantastic foil on every level. Norton foils Keaton; Mike foils Riggan; the characters they each play in the troubled play foil each other. Absurdist funnyman Zach Galifianakis steals nearly every scene he’s in as Jake, Riggan’s best friend and lawyer, showing the depth and range he’s capable of achieving as an actor. Emma Stone is brilliant as Riggan’s fresh-from-rehab daughter/personal assistant and more than holds her own against the heavyweight talents of Keaton and Norton.

I could go on. And on. And on. But let’s get to the point. It’s rare that a film can be accurately described as perfect, but Birdman is exactly that. It’s not only the best movie of the year, it’s one of the best movies released in years — and I imagine it will probably hold that title for many years to come.

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