Movie Review: Birdman – Michael Keaton just broke the word meta

birdman-posterRiggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is an aging action star whose days in the limelight dwindled 20 years prior, when he left his starring role in the comic book franchise Birdman.

He’s desperate to earn the acclaim he’s never been able to find in Hollywood by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play adapted from the short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” by the late author Raymond Carver.

Riggan has a (literal) dark twisted voice in his head that taunts and mocks him for ever thinking that he’s anything more than a washed up movie star. He also has the power to levitate and move objects with his mind.

So yeah, Birdman, the latest offering from Academy Award nominated director Alejandro González Iñárritu, isn’t shying away from the whole quirky label.

In fact, with Birdman, quirkiness is basically embedded in every shot. Or should I say shot, singular, because for the bulk of the movie González Iñárritu manages to tell his story— even while jumping forward in time— without ever making a cut.

And you know, for the most part it all works pretty well. There’s nothing worse than gimmick for the sake of gimmick, but González Iñárritu’s sturdy hand keeps the focus off the camera work and on the actors.

Birdman is a thoughtful examination of the artistic process– what it means to leave one’s mark on the world, whether we can ever reinvent ourselves, and if any of that matters in the end anyway.

Or, to put it another way, it’s a mishmash of characters who embody all these ideas. Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), an uncompromising actor who can only find truth on stage. Sam (Emma Stone), Riggan’s daughter, looking for her place after a stint in rehab. Lesley (Naomi Watts), in her first stint on Broadway just wanting to catch her first break.

Each of them have their own way of sparking one aspect or another of the discussion as they duck in and out of Riggin’s path, or in rare instances break off on their own.

It leads to some pretty memorable scenes, like Sam expressing to Riggan just how inconsequential he might be, or Lesley lamenting about whether she’s made it or not. (Honourable mention to Riggan’s run-in with a theatre critic played by Lindsay Duncan, which has managed to make writing this review a tad more self-reflective).

Birdman is challenging at times, and perhaps overly so. All the philosophizing can leave it feeling a bit scattered. There aren’t any weak characters, but the spotlight is first and foremost on Riggan, which means that people tend to exit at odd points to never be heard from again.

Riggan’s powers can also be a problem as they just get more and more bizarre as the movie drags on. I’m sure there’s some sort of metaphor in all of it, but truthfully the point was lost on me.

The lack of focus means that Birdman has a lot of great scenes, but maybe not a cohesive whole.

None of this is the fault of the actors however, who, given how difficult a process it must have been to film these long takes, deliver some truly amazing performances. So often with these star studded casts there’s not enough material to go around. In Birdman, everyone takes what they’re given and finds something interesting in it.

None more so than Keaton, who shows just how good he can actually be when given the chance. I’m not an actor myself, but I’d imagine one of the hardest things to pull off is to have your character “acting” too.

Riggan is called to perform the same scene of his self-written play several times in Birdman, and on each occasion Keaton manages to add some subtle nuance to his performance to match whatever Riggan’s mindset is at the time.

And if acting out a stage play in a movie designed like a stage play wasn’t enough, Keaton— an actor who was the star of a comic book franchise in the 90s — ends up playing an actor who was the star of a comic book franchise in the 90s. That’s pretty damn meta. I’m not a physicist, but I’m sure there’s a tear in the fabric of spacetime somewhere.

Nevertheless, Birdman is compelling. Darkly funny when it wants to be and never letting itself stray too far into the realm of parlour trick, even with its one-of-kind scene blocking. In short, director Alejandro González Iñárritu has delivered something truly unique.

Final Score: 4/5