What an incredible experience watching Birdman is. It's funny, gritty, timely, and above all, beautiful. A technical accomplishment that dazzles as well as emotionally stirs, Birdman features fantastic performances from all its lead actors, who are given a script that allows them to become characters who are trying to figure out what it means to be an actor in the age of the internet while still clinging to their childhood expectations in spite of all they've beaten down with in the industry. I was prepared for a two-hour Michael Keaton "acting" reel that uses a lot of CGI cuts to make the whole movie appear to be one long take. What I got was a cinematic thrill ride.
The story follows Riggan Thomson (Keaton), a former Hollywood action star of a series of films called Birdman from over twenty years ago (obviously, and perfectly, as a reference to the Batman films Keaton himself). He's currently living at a theater on Broadway, where below he is in the process of writing, directing, and starring in a new play that will hopefully bring him back to relevance since his acting career has been waning. The rehearsals have been a disaster; his new actor Mike (Edward Norton) is ego-driven and unpredictable, his lead actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) is having self doubts, and his supporting actress and girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) may be pregnant with his child (and may also a bit insane). His daughter Sam (Emma Stone) works for him behind the scenes as a personal assistant, but as a former drug addict, she's constantly on the edge of slipping back into her old ways. Riggan's lawyer and best friend (Zach Galifianakis) does what he can to help Riggan out, but there seems to be too much chaos for him to get a handle on it all. At the center of all this drama is Riggan's story of discovering self-value in unorthodox ways, many of which involve talking to his alter ego Birdman inside his head while he performs feats like telekinesis and levitation. But that's all in his head, right? Right?!
Birdman is about so many things, and to really explore them all would take up two reviews at least. At its core, it's about staying relevant in a quickly changing world. This isn't necessarily a new concept, especially when it comes to ex-Batman players *cough* Adam West *cough*, but the way the concept is presented is so creative that it feels fresh. It captures this point in time so well it's staggering, summing up the 2014 generation's obsessions with social media, online videos, blockbuster superhero movies, and jaded attitudes. I find it very interesting that Emma Stone, a star of the new Spider-man films, was chosen to star in a movie that criticizes them, but I wouldn't have it any other way. The film doesn't stand up on a soap box to tell you this; the theme is weaved throughout the narrative seamlessly and never gives easy solutions to how we're supposed to live our lives. This is a character piece first and foremost, and it delivers due to its incredible script and valuable cast. I can't say enough good things about this cast; it's absolutely perfect, especially considering the nature of the film's camerawork (i.e. that the entire film is made to look like one, continuous shot). Some of these takes go on for what seems like 20 to 30 minutes, and the timing of the choreography is spot on. The way the actors play off each other (captured through the continuous, gliding camerawork) is not just a joy to watch; it's like watching a miracle.
Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki have created something I just can't wrap my head around... how did they do this? While some of the cuts may be obvious (going through a dark corridor), some are mind-blowingly discrete. Like, how did they light this film? The camera is constantly swinging in all directions, whizzing through the theater, outside the theater, and hovering over rooftops like a character itself. I imagine color correcting this film was like trying to tame a rabies-invested lion. Don't even get me started on how lived-in the world feels, with set design (if it even is a set) that transports you to this grimy world and makes sure you stay there. It's commendable work all around, and is without a doubt one of the most technically impressive movies I've ever seen of this type. And I've seen Timecode.
Everything about Birdman works perfectly in synch. The richly layered script, the rounded characters, the perfect cast, and the ground breaking direction... it's all too much to take in from having seen it only once. I'll be damned if this movie doesn't get a nomination for best picture, or hell, wins best picture at the Oscars this year, with Keaton taking home best actor for good measure. It's an ambitious character piece as well as a glorious technical achievement, and seeing those two aspects married together so beautifully is a rare sight to behold.