Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Major Players: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts
Out Of Five: 4.5
I don’t often see films twice at the cinema. The last time was in 2008. The Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men was such a knock-out that a second viewing was compulsory. And it’s quite likely I’ll take a repeat look at Alejandro Innaritu’s Birdman – but for different reasons. Not that I didn’t enjoy it – I did, hugely – but because there’s so much in it that I have a nasty suspicion that I’ve either missed or forgotten things. Or both.
Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is a washed-up actor, best known for playing a cartoon superhero in the 90s, the Birdman of the title. He’s sunk everything into a Broadway play he’s written and directed and he’s taking the lead role as well. The preview performances leading up to the opening are all fraught with disasters, which piles the pressure on the actor. And he has problems of his own, not the least of which is his teenage daughter (Emma Stone) who’s fresh out of re-hab and now working as his assistant. Plus he simply can’t shake off his alter-ego, Birdman.
Perhaps the most publicised aspect of the film is that it looks like it was shot in one, enormous take. After all, as Inarritu has been saying in interviews, that’s what everybody’s life is like. For the actors working on the production, it wasn’t that simple: they had to perform long takes absolutely perfectly in one go so that the finished work would look seamless. So, more than ever, the camera is the audience’s eyes, taking them through the shabby, labyrinthine corridors of the St James’ Theatre on Broadway, where the film is set. Built in the late 1920s, it looks like it’s never been decorated or cleaned since. The camera moves so seamlessly and naturally from one scene to another that it’s easy not to notice.
A black comedy mixed with spoonfuls of satire, Birdman has plenty of targets. Actors are one, celebrities another – and they’re not one and the same, as cold eyed theatre critic Lindsay Duncan points out. Actors, though, are very much top of the list with all their insecurities and massive egos. There’s Edward Norton’s Mike, an excellent actor but an arrogant nightmare as a person who says that he’s only ever real when he’s on stage. That’s what he says – he’s an actor, after all, so how can we believe him? And Riggan also falls into the trap of playing a part in what should be his real life.
Celebrities, on the other hand, aren’t of the big screen or stage variety, the ones trending on social media, who become overnight sensations for the proverbial fifteen minutes. Ironically, it happens to Twitter-hating Riggan himself, when he locks himself out of the theatre and has to make his way back through the crowded streets of New York in just his underpants and socks. Inevitably, he makes it onto You Tube (as well as the oh so passe TV news) and it turns his play into a sell out. But he’s more interested in the interview Mike has done for the local daily paper, so he does one himself. Because that’s what matters to him.
Which leads us to the media itself, especially the social variety and its hold over its primarily young audience which doesn’t seem to experience anything at first hand any more – no theatre, no cinema, just what’s on You Tube. It’s a world that Riggan neither understands or figures in. But does that really matter? The more conventional media doesn’t escape unscathed in a priceless moment where Riggan’s interviewed by a small group of foreign press. One asks him ridiculous questions which are nothing to do with the play. You know her article will be even more nonsensical. And there’s an Oriental who, because of his poor English, misunderstands something the actor says and gets very excited about what he thinks is the likely Birdman 4. It’s how rumours and media stories start.
The acting has come in for a lot of attention, primarily because it marks the return of Michael Keaton to centre stage. He’s superb and it’s an endearingly frank performance. There aren’t many actors in their mid-60s would be happy to be shown running around in their underpants and showing to an unforgiving camera that his face has lines and his hair is more than little thin on top. He simply throws caution to the wind and it’s great to see him in a leading role again. But he’s not the only one giving a top performance. Edward Norton’s Mike is an utter pain in the ass, which makes the fact that he can put bums on seats in the theatre even more annoying, and Naomi Watts is equally good as the leading lady who’s dreamed of being on Broadway and now finds that achieving her dream is decidedly hollow.
The film is frequently funny – savagely so. It’s absorbing, intelligent, full of details and scatters references around like confetti, all of which makes it feel closer to an intellectual exercise – and also accounts for why I may watch it again.
Is it a masterpiece, as so many are saying? It comes close, although it could have done with a few minutes being shaved off towards the end. That’s a minor point, though, as I was constantly amused, engrossed and trying to work out which way it would turn next. It’s one heck of a way to start the movie year.
Birdman is released around the UK on Thursday, 1 January 2015.