Believe the hype, folks. Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu faultlessly crafts Birdman, a film that appears as one long tracking shot, using clever filmmaking skills to pull off the remarkable style. Michael Keaton makes an incredible comeback in a momentous performance that deserves all of the praise and awards that it’s sure to garner, but it’s Edward Norton who steals the show with a paramount performance that perfectly encapsulates what the actor is really like. This is an ambitious, breathtaking, and technically impressive work of art.
Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, a narcissistic movie star who is famous for portaying a superhero twenty years ago in a blockbuster franchise tentatively titled Birdman. This reminds viewers of Keaton’s success in the Tim Burton Batman movies without directly referencing it. Riggan is trying to change how audiences perceive him by directing, adapting and starring in a Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He’s trying to prove something to himself and his family while overcoming several obstacles.
After an actor is injured during one of the rehearsals, eccentric Broadway star Mike (Edward Norton) steps in to play one of the supporting roles alongside his girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts). Mike’s method acting proves to be overwhelming for some, particularly Riggan, who feels that Mike is overshadowing his talent. Others working on the production are Riggan’s problematic daughter Sam (Emma Stone) who is fresh out of rehab and his frenetic manager and best friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis). Throughout all of this, Riggan battles his personal demons, more specifically a voice in his head pushing him to become Birdman again.
This is a very stylistic movie. It’s staged to be one long shot, drifting through the theater, the dressing rooms, and Times Square. Not once does it feel like a gimmick; Iñárritu’s direction is immaculate thanks to the amount of substance the film has. With a script crediting four different writers, there’s never a dull moment. The script juggles several different characters, but it doesn’t feels overstuffed. There are no needless scenes. There are no plot holes. Everything has significance. It’s just so good.
Michael Keaton’s career has been a good one despite having more supporting roles the past few years. His post-Batman career consisted of side roles in films such as Jackie Brown and The Other Guys. It’s been a while since he’s had a solid leading role. Birdman resurrects his career in an earth-shattering manner. While there are moments where Keaton’s character is overshadowed by others, we are always brought back to Riggan and his emotions leading up to the opening night of his play. Keaton handles this role with great care; he builds momentum and insufferable tension. It’s a thrilling performance.
Every scene Edward Norton is in, he completely steals the show. It’s no secret that he’s not an easy guy to work with, but that’s what his character represents. It felt like Norton’s performance was outsized whenever he graced the screen. It takes a mammoth performance to exceed the likeness of Keaton, but Norton manages to do just that. Depending on what the Oscar race is like this season, Norton has a pretty good chance of accelerating past the competition.
The rest of the cast thrives and each character has a special moment to shine. Galifianakis is funny and lighthearted, Emma Stone is incredible, Naomi Watts channels depression (as most of the characters do), while Amy Ryan and Andrea Riseborough are both strong, though they are given little to do. It almost seems that the script was tailored for each individual actor.
Birdman flourishes in being a gripping and triumphant roller coaster. This is a must-see that is one of the best films of the year.
Birdman: 4.5 out of 5