The cast and crew, fly high in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), directed by visionary Alejandro González Iñárritu. Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor who never bounced back from his peak stardom days as part of a 1990s superhero franchise, and who is desperate to gain back some spark for his faded career. Riggan attempts to jolt himself back into the limelight through the triple threat of writing, directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
Much of the film’s content can be compared to Keaton’s own career and his peaking success in the late 80s/early 90s with Tim Burton’s Batman films, and although parallels are uncanny and speculation can be made as to why Keaton took on the project, the truth is that the actor’s persona never oversteps that of Riggan for those allegations to hold substance. For the most part, dormant and not to the level of Batman, Keaton has held his ground in Hollywood, taking on memorable roles in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown and Soderbergh’s Out of Sight and commercial appeal with The Other Guys, Toy Story 3, and the recent remake of RoboCop. As opposed to Keaton, the character of Riggan has lost touch with modern times. Akin to Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd., who can’t migrate from silent to talkie films, Riggan can’t seem to adjust to the Twitter-infested, hyper-desensitized, YouTube celebrity landscape of the modern day audience. To try and escape from his substance-lacking typecast, he pursues art and regains glory on Broadway.
Keaton’s performance is riveting and exponentially grows even more compelling towards the film’s climax. He zones in on the character of Riggan, one that could easily register on only a single note, and with minimal effort combines his strengths and vulnerabilities into one full bundle. Equally as triumphant, the entire cast of Birdman turns in superior performances, with Edward Norton (Mike) as Riggan’s supporting actor, Naomi Watts (Lesley) as the lead actress, and Emma Stone (Sam)as Riggan’s daughter/personal assistant. Fine work from Andrea Riseborough and Zach Galifianakis rounds out what’s perhaps the year’s best ensemble.
Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, best known for his work on Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity and Children of Men, has shot the film to feel as if it’s comprised of one long take. The camera swiftly follows the actors from every direction, speeding up and slowing down when needed; to the trained eye, the film clearly connects separate shots together via small transitions, such as passing through dark doorways or sweeping sky shots. Lubezki has definitely stepped up his game, an impressive feat in of itself considering his already stellar past work. Birdman takes place in and around Broadway’s St. James Theatre, but hardly feels as claustrophobic as other single location films, such as Polanski’s Carnage or Fincher’s Panic Room. And perhaps that is the intention. The hysterical characters may be cramped into corners, but energy explodes through Lubezki’s continuous camera movements.
Birdman is crafted with a healthy dose of precision and passion. Iñárritu and Keaton, in particular, have the dedication in performance and design to set the film apart from any other of the year. It’s a towering achievement, one that combines stellar performances and brazen cinematography into one indulgent pleasure.
— Christopher Clemente