“How did we end up here?” asks Riggan Thomson. “This place is horrible. Smells like balls.”
For many people around my age, our generation’s Batman was Michael Keaton (just as Christian Bale was the next generation’s Batman and Ben Affleck will be a new generation’s Batman). His portrayal of Bruce Wayne/Batman was a joy to watch, and it was unfortunate that the changing direction of the franchise led him to walking away from the character (although it was completely understandable, especially once the world got to see Joel Schumacher’s two Batman films). More than 20 years after hanging up the cape and cowl, Keaton appears in an Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu film as an actor who once played an iconic superhero who’s now trying to mount a Broadway play. I was very excited when I first heard about the storyline of Birdman, especially when I found out that Keaton was in the lead role. I got to see the first 10 minutes of the film (along with two additional clips) at the Birdman panel (featuring panelists Keaton and co-star Edward Norton) at the 2014 NY Comic Con. I recently got a chance to finally see the film, and I’m glad to state that, whatever your expectations, the film delivers the goods plus more.
2014’s Birdman follows a washed-up movie star named Riggan Thomson who is most famous for portraying an iconic superhero called Birdman. Thomson is attempting to put on a Broadway play based on Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love that he adapted as well as directs and stars. The film deals with Thomson’s struggles with the play leading up to opening night as well as his own inner turmoil (his ego, regrets about his failed marriage and crappy parenting, etc.). Michael Keaton delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as Thomson, an actor looking for self-meaning and redemption in a world that has almost forgotten him. The parallels between Keaton and Thomson’s careers are eerie; it is Keaton’s history with Batman that made him the perfect actor to play Thomson. Rounding out the terrific cast are Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Naomi Watts, and Lindsay Duncan. Norton’s stage actor Mike Shiner in particular is quite the foil to Keaton’s Thomson, coming close to being a parody of Norton, and Stone shines as Thomson’s daughter, a recovering drug addict who now works as her father’s assistant. The big surprise for me was Duncan, who has a small role as a NY Times theater critic who intends to completely destroy Thomson’s play in her review before she has even seen it.
Inarritu co-wrote the unconventional screenplay with Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo. While Keaton’s performance is the main highlight of Birdman, the second biggest highlight would be Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography and the editing by Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione. Through visual manipulation and editing, most of the film occurs in one long take (another great achievement by Lubezki that could net him a second Academy Award just a year after his Oscar-winning work in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity). The production design by Kevin Thompson is first-rate (most of the action takes place inside of the St. James Theatre on 44th St. in New York City), as are Albert Wolsky’s costume designs (how could you not love the Birdman costume?). And then there’s Antonio Sanchez’s wonderful score, which is performed entirely on drums. Hard as it may be to believe, Birdman is not only Inarritu’s best film but also his most accessible. It stands as a bold and creative work that will surely be studied in film classes for years to come just like cinematic greats such as 1941’s Citizen Kane, 1960’s Psycho, 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and 1976’s Taxi Driver.