Birdman soars in scope, theme and artistry

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4 out of 4 stars

Backstage antics find difficulty translating to the screen. Playwrights and directors have it hard enough translating this topic to the stage. But for film, much of the in-house humor can be lost on a wide release audience and the staging of a backstage comedy alone simply cannot be achieved easily.

Michael Keaton (YouTube Trailer)
Michael Keaton
(YouTube Trailer)

In Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), a miracle has occurred in that the relationships and trip-ups of the rehearsal process have been perfectly transposed to a film form with finely tuned senses of both humor and melancholy. Ingenious direction, intuitive screenwriting, well-crafted production values and a borderline perfect cast set Birdman as one of the best films of the year, if not the decade.

Actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) finds himself struggling to disassociate from his 90’s comic book movie superhero persona “Birdman” that has given him fame and, ultimately, failure as an artist.  In his latest attempt, he has poured what little money he has into his own stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, an adaptation he has taken it upon himself to both star in and direct on Broadway.

Between odd-ball girlfriends in the cast (Andrea Riseborough) and slowly jading costars (Naomi Watts); between an estranged daughter fresh out of rehab (Emma Stone) and a caring ex-wife longing for the real Riggan (Amy Ryan); and between a heartfelt manager pulling his hair out over his client (Zach Galifianakis) and a new replacement in the cast whose dedication to his craft borders on egomaniacal (Edward Norton); it is not difficult to see why Riggan seems to be slowly going crazy before our eyes out of his desperation for one more taste of success. The question now becomes “What will happen on opening night?”

Emma Stone (YouTube Trailer)
Emma Stone
(YouTube Trailer)

Writer/director Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Babel and 21 Grams) has crafted one of the funniest, most poignant comedies of the year. With cowriters Nicolás Giacobone and Armando Bo (Biutiful), as well as first time screenwriter Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., Iñárritu has crafted an ingenious look at the madness of art in all of its forms. Themes of obsession with perfection and the unachievable goal of constant adoration never have been captured like this, in their purest forms, all behind a darkly slapstick guise saddled with sharp character studies. The spot on dialogue gives the illusion of improvisation, but make no mistake: this film is scripted to a “T”.

As a director, Iñárritu pulls off several simultaneous hat tricks. The most obvious achievement: the illusion of a single take. The film flows so fluidly thanks to his expertly choreographed direction (shifting cleanly between the apt claustrophobia of the St. James Theatre and the hustle and bustle of Times Square), beautifully constructed cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity and The Tree of Life), and near perfect editing from Douglas Crise (Arbitrage and Spring Breakers) and Stephen Mirrione (Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven), we believe the two-hour film has all been done in one very large take with no cuts.

Edward Norton, Jr. (YouTube Trailer)
Edward Norton, Jr.
(YouTube Trailer)

This remarkable feat sticks us inside the heads of these slowly maddening artists (helped along thanks to Lubezki’s ever so subtle warping of the frame) and adds a theatrical door-slamming, slapstick vibe comparable to plays such as Noises Off.  Iñárritu should be commended for his fearless artistic choices, as well as for his skill in directing his cast.

This film features the best ensemble performance of the year. Every single actor gives one hundred percent at all times, providing the “improvisational” atmosphere the adrenaline shot it needs to thrive. Does the cast border on cartoon at times? Absolutely, but this plays perfectly off of Riggan’s pathetically underplayed tone and gives him a necessary amount of gravitas, not to mention sympathy.

While Riseborough, Watts, Ryan, and Galifianakis have gone above and beyond, the two stand outs among the supporting cast simply have mastered their roles to a point of dark comic genius: Stone, making perfect use of her beautifully expressive face to craft the contours of an otherwise mysterious role; and Norton, whose nuanced complexity allows his character to be simultaneously hilariously aggravating and effortlessly charming.

Zack Galifianakis (YouTube Trailer)
Zack Galifianakis
(YouTube Trailer)

But Keaton’s performance stands as incomparable to any other given this year. His descent into madness is so finely tuned, his laser focus so searing, and his comic ability so unexpected. Expect to see his first Oscar nomination come awards’ season time, if not his first win.

In a year of some fairly limp comedies and even less successful commentaries on the human condition, one cannot help but applaud attempts from artists like these in creating works simultaneously humorous, insightful, and morose. The innate need for humans to be loved, on whatever scale, has been woven neatly into a story of loss and longing that will have you laughing from start to finish, thanks to a creative team to beat the band. Do not miss the highlight of this film-going year.