Review: Birdman

There is a lot to admire about the work put into “Birdman.” The cast members all deliver stellar performances, the musical score is unique and the writing is so superb it made me want to stand up and cheer at moments. But the most notable aspect of this film is the decision by director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu to shoot the entire movie to make it look like one single shot. Yes, you heard that right, one single shot.

This choice was made to make it feel like a theater production, which is the setting of the film after all. But the camera work is done so seamlessly that it’s hard to notice half the time. What really draws you in and holds on are the performances and self-aware humor of the entertainment industry that this film masters.

The story of “Birdman” follows Riggan Thompson (played by Michael Keaton), a washed-up actor who is best known for playing the iconic superhero role of Birdman on the big screen. Everyone knows Thompson for this role, and crowds still go nuts over him, but he left behind the superstardom to pursue a career of “real art.”

His next move? Gracing the New York City streets with a new Broadway show starring, written and directed by Riggan himself. Riggan has put his heart and wallet into this production, one that he hopes will mean something to the world and make him feel like he matters to the art community. All throughout the film, his subconscious is being heard inside his head, making for some interesting psychological mind games and some entertaining acting moments from Keaton.

After an on-set injury, one of the play’s actors is replaced by highly acclaimed method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). Shiner is an intense performer who sinks deep into the craft of acting, so much so that he will freak out on you if you replace a prop during a preview. He brings a lot of extra drama to the story and his played perfectly by Norton.

The rest of the ensemble cast includes Emma Stone as Riggan’s rebellious daughter/assistant, Amy Ryan as his ex-wife, Zach Galifianakis as his best-friend/lawyer and Naomi Watts as the lead actress of the production trying to come out with her big break on stage. All of these actors play their parts with energy and authenticity, revealing sides of themselves that audiences haven’t seen before. At least for Galifianakis and Stone, these are performances viewers will be surprised by the most.

Given that Inarritu is known for directing heavy dramas, I did not expect him to create such a funny look into the entertainment industry. This not only works as a commentary of the pretensions of New York theater, but also holds a mirror up to the current superhero and celebrity trend Hollywood seems to be so in love with.

This is also the best performance of Michael Keaton’s career by a mile. The man has talent, but rarely is it ever shown like it is here. Keaton’s best moment is one where he goes on a rant about critics and how they use their words to put down and harm the work of hard working artists. But even with that scene it is hard to pick out one solid moment as the best, given that he plays Riggan with so many layers and so much mystery.

He sees moving things with his mind or floating in mid-air, which raises the question of  whether Riggan really has superpowers or if he has simply lost his mind. The easy answer could be that since he is in the art community he has, in fact, lost his mind, but that answer is never fully given.

“Birdman” is an achievement on both a satirical storytelling and the use of technology. Those with any bit of interest in theater or film will find its style fascinating, while other viewers will be sucked into its spot on conversations and committed cast. While it is a bizarre trip, I believe that it is a trip worth taking.