UK Release Date 2nd January 2015
Director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu
Starring KEATON
Runtime 119 minutes
Certificate 15
Reviewer Jo
Reviewed 4th January 2015

Michael Keaton has had some really great roles in his time - Beetlejuice, Batman, Mr Mom; sadly that time was a while ago and undeservedly of late Keaton’s career has been a touch hit and miss.  This is much like the life of Riggan Thomson, a character he now embodies in what is being called the role of Keaton’s career for writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest offering, Birdman. Shot for a poultry - (sorry couldn’t help it)  – a paltry $16 million in one month, Birdman is a strange, iambic and sublime piece of story telling that is entirely captivating from start to finish. 

Riggan Thompson is a fading movie actor, star of three superhero films - Birdman that grossed billions, but he hung up his wings in 1992.  Now he is trying to prove his worth again by writing, directing, producing and starring an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When we Talk About Love on Broadway. Riggan is still haunted by Birdman in more ways than one - he hears Birdman’s voice haunting his decisions and he still seems to have the telekinetic powers of Birdman. These powers supposedly make a stage light fall on the head of fellow actor Ralph, whom Riggan despises, the night before the previews. Various names are put forward including Michael Fassbender and Jeremy Renner. All of them are doing superhero movies and unavailable. Oh the irony. They are saved by the stepping in of renowned theatre actor Mike Shiner whose ‘method’ method acting makes for three of the worst previews in Broadway history and Riggan’s grip on reality starts to become as loose as the stage light that collared Ralph. 

Alejandro González Iñárritu and DP Emmanuel Lubezki create a sweeping, seamless world through the lens of the camera as they endeavour to create the sorcerous feeling of the film being one long tracking shot. Our opening shot of Riggan finds him levitating in his underpants in the faded grandeur of his dressing room. In fact Birdman doesn’t feel like a film at all sometimes. It feels like being part of an interactive theatre experience - the camera swoops down buildings like our eponymous super hero, street lights burn out as if the show is ending, time lapses take us from fading summer light into breaking dawn. Broadway itself is a character in Birdman, we can smell the summer heat rising from the Broadway bricks, the St James Theatre is a character with its labyrinthine corridors and darkened corners. A jazz drummer outside the theatre becomes the heady, intense soundtrack to the film.  A drunk outside a liquor store eulogises a speech that could have come from the lips of Carver himself, he even stops to ask Riggan if his performance was OK. An assault on the senses as reality and fantasy collide, it’s an intoxicating journey. Iñárritu’s enormous skill at weaving narrative as seen in Babel and 21 Grams comes into play here by beautifully interlocking the play, the cast, the reality and the fantasy all together in a dream-like patchwork. Iñárritu and Lubezki have created a Birdman that is a bewitching, lenitive dance. 

Riggan’s fantasy ‘episodes’ are often accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, Rachmaninoff’s Second, and Mahler’s Ninth. Expansive and self-important pieces of music, befitting an egomaniac creating a highly expensive show to justify if he is good at his job. In Birdman the world is a stage and Riggan is it’s fading star clinging on for dear life.  The balletic camerawork is combined with intense steadicam shots, we are always very close to Riggan, we see the spit fall from his mouth and sweat shine on his wrinkled forehead, the pins from his wig cap. It is immediate and claustrophobic. The outside world and the all-encompassing world of the theatre where Riggan’s final act is taking place collide in the most spectacular way.

The cast are faultless. Keaton’s magnificent, twitchy egocentric Riggan is ably supported by a fabulously mad, wide eyed Andrea Riseborough as his on off lover Laura; Lesley a neurotic Gloria Swanson-esque Naomi Watts and Mike Shiner, the mad method actor whose verbal spoutings come dangerously close to the most truthful speech in the movie played without vanity by Ed Norton in his strongest role for a while. Emma Stone gives gravitas to Riggan’s spoilt little rich daughter in recovery and Zach Galianafikis plays it straighter than usual but still elicits a lot of laughs as Riggan’s lawyer and friend. Lindsey Duncan as acidic critic Tabitha and Amy Ryan as Riggan’s long-suffering ex wife are also en pointe. There isn’t a missed beat between the whole cast. It’s a beautiful thing to witness. 

Riggan's take on What We Talk About When We Talk about Love is played back to us over and over, certain speeches we hear three or four times. Some of these resonate, particularly Riggan’s final scene when he is asking what is wrong with him, why can’t he be loved. Art mimicking life-mimicking art. Iñárritu chose Carver’s brutal short story because of it’s difficult material to adapt to the stage, particularly for a fading movie star making his first time foray into theatre. The arrogance of Riggan's choice material is clear for all to see.  

Riggan’s self absorption makes for some very funny moments. His despair at being on a plane with engine trouble with George Clooney and the fact that his daughter would be upset that Clooney’s face would be on the front of the paper and not his, swiftly followed by his torment that Farrah Fawcett died the same day as Michael Jackson.  It’s a clever script handled well by the whole cast and whilst it is poking fun at actors it is not with malice. There is more fun to be poked by Birdman at Hollywood and it’s various desire for be-caped super heroes. Another standout scene is a surreal moment where Riggan attacks Shiner with a magazine after confronting him whilst he is on the sunbed. Very funny indeed. 

Riggan confronts acerbic theatre critic Tabitha and takes her to task about being the futility of being a critic. This says more about Iñárritu more than Riggan. In a passionate plea Riggan protests to Tabitha that he his whole life is in the play, he is putting himself out there for everyone to see, to try and create art and she just sits there and labels things, points out the faults. She cannot even see the art in front of her. The insensitivity and misplaced power of the critic is obviously one that rubs Iñárritu up the wrong way. May we suggest, Alejandro, that you swing by, you’ll find us a lot more accommodating. 

There will be countless attempts at deciphering the message behind Birdman and there are hugely varying ways it can be read (there will undoubtedly be a large number of internet forums picking over the carcass late at night for years to come). I for one am just content to enjoy its madness and eccentricities without dissecting it too much.  In an arena of often uninspiring and lazy film making Birdman is truly authentic and exciting. This startlingly original piece of filmmaking is as much about an artist’s desire to be heard as it is about the narrow-minded shallowness of Hollywood. It fully deserves all of what Riggan himself was doggedly pursuing – respect, adulation and all of the accolades already piled on its feathered shoulders. A triumph indeed. 

Check out the trailer here.

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