Review: Birdman

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When thinking of how we perceive our world, do we consider our vision to be one endless tracking shot, interspersed with barely perceptible cuts in blinking? If what we see is simply happening inside our heads, then are our dreams both waking and in sleep just extensions of our corporeal existence? These are some of the strange thoughts one might have while watching Birdman, a defiant film whose storytelling centers on a visual technique that plunges viewers into compelling existential depths. It might be surprising then, to learn that the film is a wickedly dark comedy, taking multiple heavy themes head on, but never wallowing in its own misery. As a major departure for director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman could have proved to be a minor experiment or worse, a stunt, but with a frenzied cast and rascally attitude, it emerges as endlessly provocative and thought provoking cinema.

Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) hasn’t felt relevant in a couple of decades. In the early 1990’s he was known the world over as cinematic superhero Birdman, and he had a successful career financially in that franchise. It’s been long since he passed on a fourth film, and he has yet to return to that same level of cultural importance. Now, he’s in the midst of putting on a production of Raymond Chandler on Broadway, in which he both directs and stars. The play in question is the outlandishly titled, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” appropriate to both his and the film’s ambitions. As he gears up for opening night with preview performances, Riggan finds himself in need of replacing a key supporting role at the last minute as well as coming to terms with his fresh out of rehab daughter (Emma Stone). On top of all of this, Riggan struggles with his own inner demons, as personified by his zany Birdman alter ego, trying to lure him into the dark corners of his mind.

The first bold element to Birdman lies in where it begins its story. In most “comeback” films, its easy to start with the protagonist’s early golden days, followed by finding him past his prime and then pursuing the arc of personal renaissance. Instead, Birdman commences right in the thick of this supposed rebirth, as Riggan meditates in his dressing room, and his nefarious alter ego inquires, “How did we end up here?” As the anxiety of opening day approaches and urgency already at a fever pitch, the first act begins on an admittedly shrill note, and some lines of dialogue strain a bit too much for wit. However, once Birdman arrives at a pivotal moment in the midst of the first preview performance, everything starts to narratively and aesthetically click. The film manages to juggle between moments of zany humor, to stripped bare honesty and even leaps into the surreal. This precise balance of tones informs the characters and the themes at large.

There’s no doubting the parallels between Michael Keaton’s career and that of Riggan Thompson, but those connections are far from the sole rationale behind his casting. Riggan Thompson is a uniquely multifaceted character, requiring many different notes to play, and Keaton’s adeptness at navigating between comedic and dramatic beats (often within the same scene) deserves to be lauded. It also helps immensely when he has such a robust ensemble to support him, many of whom make lasting impressions. Self aggrandizing yet self deprecatory, Edward Norton’s Mike is nearly as fascinating a character as Riggan himself. Mike is the last minute fill in for the production, and Norton has never been this playful and loose, from admonishing Riggan in one moment for his own self righteousness, to acknowledging his own narcissism in the next. Another key performance is found in Emma Stone, playing Riggan’s daughter, Sam. While she dutifully assists her father with his production, she also harbors resentment about his absence in her formative years. This all comes to a head when she verbally demolishes him, declaring that his pursuit for relevance is utterly futile. Stone spits this monologue with such acidity, but its the moments immediately following that truly imply her conflicted feelings. The remainder of the supporting cast gets a little bit less to chew on, but faces like a grounded Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s manager, Naomi Watts as a nervy actress and Amy Ryan as Riggan’s beleaguered but compassionate ex-wife all leave their marks.

For director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman is a complete 180 degree turn from his previous efforts, which were mostly fractured, gut punching films. Where does one begin to make a film on the other end of the spectrum? Well, it starts with a cinematic technique as grandiose as the characters’ ambitions. For the exception of a few images, Birdman is depicted as a single unbroken shot. Naturally, given some of the movements of the camera, there is some CGI assisting and hidden cuts, but the long takes are frequently astounding nevertheless. To achieve this, Inarritu wisely chose reigning master of long takes in Emmanuel Lubezki, who notably lensed last year’s Gravity. The question then must be asked, why pursue this painstaking aesthetic? This leads back to the start of the review, in the perception of life as an unbroken take, and thus the camera itself as an omniscient character in Birdman. Lubezki’s photography is a bit more intrusive than usual, but it ultimately befits and helps to set the film’s manic atmosphere. Though this take encapsulates the majority of the runtime, the shot itself does not capture a given amount of real time. Rather, it effortlessly transitions from one day to the next, sometimes noticeably, and other times imperceptibly. It’s not an understatement to praise Lubezki’s work as the technical achievement of the year, but it would also be amiss not to acknowledge the percussive score that provides Birdman with a jazzy energy.

If Birdman were not a comedy, its’ characters diatribes on a whole range of themes and ideas would likely be difficult to swallow without pretension. Some thematic statements deserve subtlety and implication, but the grandstanding in this film feels appropriate. Thus, Birdman is unabashedly straightforward in many cases with its exploration and admonition of everything from current celebrity culture, the Hollywood studio system, self interest, and ultimately, self relevance. Birdman sets up several characters taking on these big themes, and while these characters might be flawed and conflict with each other, they all speak some grains of truth that weave into the larger fabric of the narrative. Playful yet insightful, absurd and yet deeply existential, Birdman is a series of contradictions and extremes that have no right to work, but Inarritu’s cast and aesthetic alchemy catapult it as high as the avian superhero himself will fly.

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~ by romancinema on October 18, 2014.

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