“Birdman” is directed by Alejandro G. Inárritu and boasts an ensemble cast consisting of Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis and a bunch of other talented actors. It follows Riggan Thomas (Keaton), an actor who used to be famous for playing a superhero called Birdman. However that was twenty years ago and now he is washed up, divorced and hears the voice of Birdman in his head, prodding him about his lost glory. He tries to win back respect and credibility by putting on a Broadway play that he adapted himself.
So much for the synopsis, however if you want to know what the movie really is about… think grand themes, love, life, self-respect, people… there is little that this movie doesn’t touch on. Every single character in this film is fleshed out and has his or her own problems to deal with. The script has a quality about it that reminded me of “Good Will Hunting”, where you could clearly see any characters point of view. No one in that movie is wrong, it’s just that they want and need different things and that’s where the conflict comes from. “Birdman” is exactly the same. It’s a very rare thing and especially in films it goes wrong all the time (prime example of late would be “The Imitation Game” in which we are just asked to accept that Turing is right and everyone else is wrong).
But even a great script could fail if the actors can’t deliver. Well, they can and they do. Keaton of course is first and foremost, realizing his character with a gruff exterior and some spectacular personal issues. However, he is never in danger of becoming unlikeable, because as we see him interact with different people, we see that there is a warm side to him, especially in his scenes with Naomi Watts’ young actress (reprising her role from “King Kong”?) whose dream of being in a Broadway play comes true thanks to Riggan.
Edward Norton manages the same thing, although with an almost completely different character. He plays the second lead in Riggan’s play, prestige actor Mike Shiner, who turns out to be troublesome backstage and on-stage, throwing tantrums left and right, being a cruel boyfriend to Naomi Watts and hitting on Riggan’s daughter Sam, played by Emma Stone. However, just as Riggan shows that he is not completely self-obsessed, in his conversations with Sam, he slowly reveals his own insecurities. We also see his growing respect for Riggan and that the two of them might have more in common than they initially thought when the two of them have separate altercations with a theatre critic.
Also deserving of praise are Zach Galifianakis and Emma Stone. Galifianakis anchors large portions of the movie as Riggan’s manager, showing his talent in a much more serious role than we usually see him. Stone has a few memorable moments all to herself, when she opens up to her father about her drug rehabilitation and explains viral videos to him.
One important aspect of this film has gone unmentioned so far. In true Hitchcockian manner, Inárritu decided to shoot the film with the intent to make it look as if it was one long take. No cutting back and forth between characters during dialogue, no simple scene transitions, nothing. The camera follows the characters, switching from one to the other at times, incorporating smart ways to hide the passing of time, it’s all quite breath-taking. This could of course be dismissed as a gimmick, but it simply isn’t. Because we don’t cut away when a pivotal scene is over for one character, but instead just follow another, we see how much they actually rely on each other, be it because Riggan needs Mike to be his second lead or because Sam finally gets Mike to open up a bit off-stage. All of these things are connected to each other, which makes this such a great ensemble film, even if on paper Riggan might be the main character.
The only thing I could say that I didn’t love 100% was that in the end most characters find some kind of gratification for their character arc, or show some clear growth, except for Norton’s character, who is left hanging a bit. I might see that differently if I watched it again, but for now, I would have liked to get a little bit more out of that character towards the end.
Overall, “Birdman” is probably one of the greatest ensemble movies of all time. It is a fascinating film and I really want to see it again if I find the time. So far, this is definitely my pick for best picture this year and I would be surprised if it doesn’t win.
Also, check out my friend Cinemartians review over here.