Molly Jamieson reviews the much discussed Birdman
Much attention has recently been given to Birdman – Alejandro González Iñárritu’s funky, Oscar-baiting, mid-life crisis and showbiz comedy, starring Michael Keaton, Emma Stone and Ed Norton. With an opening weekend gross of over a million pounds in the UK (and since then an overall gross of over $69 million), I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Even two weeks after it hit UK screens, it took four cinemas and three hours of getting lost in Soho to find a showing that wasn’t sold out.
We open with Michael Keaton in his dressing room, clad only in suitably pathetic white boxer-briefs, and meditating, while hovering three feet in the air. While there is an element of whimsy in beginning the film this way, the presence of the tighty-whities (synonymous now with the man in crisis, thanks to Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad) gives us an idea of what we are in for – a gruelling, frank, surprising story of a typical mid-life crisis in an atypical situation.
Seamlessly edited to give the illusion that the film is a single shot, we follow Riggin Thomson (Keaton) – an ex-superhero actor and hopeless, irrelevant celebrity – as he desperately tries to reclaim his credibility and self-worth through directing, financing and starring in his own stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. A well-timed ‘mishap’ with a falling light during rehearsal prompts the hurried bringing in of Mike Shiner (Norton) – a narcissist, diva supreme, method actor and painfully inadequate lover – to replace the injured actor. Although Riggin is initially excited to have someone involved who is as invested as he is, the pair soon irritate each other and clash in the best possible ways.
Keaton is magnificently mediocre as both a failed actor and father, endearingly and cringingly unaware of the world of modern celebrity. He is half-crazed by his own irrelevance and pushed to the edge by the middle-aged has-beens who surround him. The ever brilliant Emma Stone plays Riggin’s angsty, pale, just-out-of-rehab daughter and assistant, sometime toilet paper doodler, sometime adrenaline junkie. Edward Norton, may just have played his ultimate role. In this self-aware performance, he is able to eloquently express the flawed and fearful feeling which lie beneath the surface.
The dynamics between the insane thespians is what drives this story onward, aided by the single-shot technique which often gives the feel of the film as a one act play, where characters come and go and the story flows from conversation to conversation, trial to trial, but with a city-wide scope. Once in a while Riggin gets left alone, and we hear the voice of his breakdown talking. It is the voice of Birdman, conspicuously reminiscent of Christian Bale’s ‘I’m Batman’ growl, talking in Riggin’s ear like a devil on his shoulder and telling him that he used to be great, and how low he has sunk. Riggin’s own minor superpowers often manifest in these times – the turning off and on of his mirror lights just by pointing, summoning objects to him with a gesture, hovering in his underwear.
The appearance of these powers is most poignant when he is out of the safety and isolation of his dressing room – in particular, following a fight with his daughter Sam about her smoking pot and his own irrelevance, when he quietly spins a cigarette case with his finger a few inches above it, or following the most brutal argument with Birdman when the eponymous superhero finally appears in physical form, and Riggin flies.
Image credits: Atsushi Nishijima/AP