In the 90s actor Riggan Thomson (Micheal Keaton) was a huge star in the successful comic book adaptations of Birdman. Now attempting to restart his career with an ambitious Broadway production he struggles with his own demons, his family, critics and volatile actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) all before opening night.
With the current trend of comic book adaptions and films turned theater productions (Ghost, Billy Elliot, Evil Dead, Shrek… the list goes on) the level of irony present throughout is the long running joke of Birdman. This is no more apparent than with the appearance of a New York film theater critic who complains to Thomson of her distaste in Hollywood and the trend of films that appeal to the lowest common denominator.
Social comments on film and theater aside, Birdman also features flights of fantasy as Riggan struggles to maintain sanity as the pressure mounts, haunted by his past successes quite literally in the form of Birdman’s lingering ghost. Whether his interactions with the world through telekinesis are real or not is a debate, but adds an extra dimension to what could of potentially been quite a dry subject.
What’s astounding in this film is the obvious comparison to the career of Keaton whose clearly taken influence from his post 80’s Batman career to form the character. The casting is spot on throughout, with rumors that Norton’s character is based on his younger arrogant self. Emma Stone plays Thomson’s troublesome daughter and proves even further that she is a maturing actress and a rising star with film successes such as Zombieland, Superbad and The Amazing Spiderman series now firmly under her belt. Most surprisingly is the appearance of Zach Galifianakis who has really stepped out of his regular ‘goofy’ guy stance from the ‘Hangover’ franchise, here instead playing Thomson’s lawyer.
DoP Emmanuel Lubezki again demonstrates why he won so many awards for ‘Gravity’ with the whole film shot to seem like a single take, the camera panning or moving to a different area to imply a passage of time, it’s engrossing as hell. Adding to the constant sense of tension is the lighting which only ever comes from natural sources or in contrast the big film lights, creating a filthy feel that strips the glamour from Broadway.
Curiously I was discussing the film with someone who has roots in the theater, who stated he found the film far too clever for it’s own good. Whilst I’m inclined to agree, part of Birdmans charm is how full of it’s self it is and how aware it is. Confidence goes a long way and from the outset Birdman strides onto the screen with indomitable swagger. Essentially an arthouse film, it’s engaging, thrilling and funny, with plenty to say on the current trend of cinema, theater and it’s stars. Birdman is fascinating in both technicality and cinematically and certain to divide opinion, but with a perfectly selected cast, arresting cinematography and a stunning script and message this is one not to miss.