Review: ‘Birdman’ (Second Opinion)

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Plot:  Washed up and broke Hollywood actor Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), most noted for his role as superhero Birdman, endeavors to revive his acting career with a Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s short story, “What we Talk About When We Talk About Love.”  However, the production is going less than smooth.  Budget costs and a major on-stage accident cause producer and best friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis) to be on edge and he’s working with his recently returned from rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone).  Additionally, Riggan contends with brilliant but difficult actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) and a neglected and possibly pregnant girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough).  To top it all off Riggan constantly hears the voice of his alter ego Birdman in his head who derides or encourages him based on the situation.  Could Riggan slowly be going insane?

Review:   Washed up movie stars are nothing new in Hollywood.  We see them every year whether it’s Gary Busey, Val Kilmer, or Margot Kidder.  It’s painful to watch Top Gun  and Lethal Weapon and not think how Kilmer’s doing atrocities like Streets of Blood and Busey’s doing Kindle television commercials and Youtube videos about the sex life of hobbits.  (I’m not making that last one up by the way.)  While I wouldn’t say Michael Keaton is washed up, he’s definitely fallen out of the limelight.

Until now.

Brilliantly acted, beautifully shot, and darkly comedic, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman stands out as one of the best films of the year and a true return to form for Keaton.  No doubt Birdman will stand tall at Oscar time and Michael Keaton is a shoe-in for a Best Actor nod if not an outright win.  While not a perfect film, Inarritu’s narrative nevertheless succeeds as a unique and fascinating piece of cinema.

Birdman proves why there needs to be an Oscar category for best ensemble cast.  Rarely has a group of characters gelled so well on-screen.  It’s a perfect marriage of characters with actors, which you can attribute to Inarritu’s near flawless script and perfect casting choices.  I love how the narrative also manages to lambaste Hollywood phonies, superhero franchises, and yes, even critics.

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While the characters are intriguing enough by themselves, I don’t think the film would have been half as good without the players who brought them to life.  All relationships center around Riggan and each possesses a unique spin, whether it’s the contentious paradigm with replacement actor Mike Shiner or his complicated interactions with strung out daughter Sam.  Incidentally both Norton and Stone deserve supporting Oscar nods for their work in this film.  Norton’s performance as a brilliant and difficult actor to work with is very meta but also multi-layered.  As for Stone, she captivates in every scene she’s in.  Her portrayal of the bitter but vulnerable Sam is unlike anything I’ve ever seen her do.

Similarly, Inarritu’s film is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  To steal a literary term, the movie feels like a two-hour homage to magical realism.  Birdman  uses a surreal cinematic approach, replete with bizarre, if over the top, dream action sequences.  Additionally, Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is edited by Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrone in such a way as to be one continuous shot.  While effective and certainly unique, it also proves exhausting at times.  It also didn’t always mesh well with Antonio Sanchez’s score which I often found discordant.

At the end of the day, Birdman is Keaton’s movie however.  He absolutely OWNS this role from start to finish.  The only word to describe the performance is mesmerizing.  I never thought Keaton was a bad actor but I never put him in that upper echelon of great actors either.  I can’t say that anymore.  It’s a performance completely bereft of ego but subtly nuanced and extremely vulnerable.  Riggan’s experience showcases the horrible nature of becoming irrelevant.  Despite the fact that he’s a washed up Hollywood actor, Keaton makes Riggan relatable to all people.   The only thing I can compare it to is Mickey Rourke’s comeback performance in The Wrestler.  It’s a clinic in superb acting and one I look forward to enjoying multiple times for years to come.

My rating:  9/10