I’m not totally sure how I’m gonna write a “review” of Birdman because I think the real purpose of a review is to help people who haven’t seen something decide whether or not they want to go see it.
So, go see it. There. That’s my review. After you’ve seen it, feel free to come back and keep reading (you don’t have to come back) but seriously don’t keep reading if you’re worried about “plot spoilers” (I haaate that phrase) because I’m gonna just talk about everything, regardless of whether it will ruin the movie for you, because sometimes that’s what you gotta do. As I just said, Spoilers Ahead:
Birdman, if you haven’t seen it (why haven’t you seen it yet?) stars Michael Keaton, playing perhaps a caricature of himself, an old washed up actor named Riggan who was once famous for playing a super hero called Birdman back in the 90s. Now he is simultaneously jealous of the new Iron-Man-Avenger Era brand of super hero actors while also trying to salvage his career by pursuing a more “artistic” project: a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”.
This is actually the only work I’ve ever read by Raymond Carver and I was glad I had it under my belt before seeing Birdman. I read it for a class in college, and I do distinctly remember that even though it’s prose, it’s sort of staged like a play, and at the very end of the short story the lights go out in the house which felt very theatrical, like the lights going down on a scene.
Now Riggan (Keaton) is turning it into a play.
What’s wonderful about the film, however, is that it’s composed of one single continuous shot (though there’s clearly a few cuts snuck in here and there) but the continuous unblinking nature of what you see, with actors coming on screen and then leaving, while the camera follows one person and then another around the theater, feels extremely theatrical. And I don’t mean “over-dramatized” but when people come on or leave, it feels like they’re leaving the stage for a costume change or to get in place for when the camera wanders back in their direction. In this sense, I have never seen a movie that felt more like a play. Coupled with the fact that within the movie they are adapting a short story for Broadway that reads as if it was meant for the stage, what you get is a powerful experience for your mind to chew on.
It’s a grinding chaotic maelstrom of performances, not just from Michael Keaton (who owns ever second he’s on screen), but honestly I have never seen Edward Norton this good, Naomi Watts is also amazing walking a thin line between ambitious and vulnerable, Zach Galifianakis does one of those wonderful things where he stops being himself and instead feels like a real character, which sometimes comedians flounder at. Emma Stone surprised me too. I guess since the only thing I’ve seen her in recently was the super boring new Spiderman movies I wasn’t expecting much, but here in Birdman she gives a powerful performance. I guess I could keep going and name drop every person, but I won’t.
The movie moves so constantly, giving such a seamless swirl of pain, angst and domestic drama that frankly it’s hard to walk out of theater with a coherent thought. The flow of it also feels like a dream and Riggan is subjected to many nightmarish horrors, like walking around naked in public.
Birdman is also difficult. It constantly references this famous piece of literature by Carver, but the film itself doesn’t seem to talk about love. Instead it talks a lot about Hollywood and Broadway, and how the two are converging in Riggan/Keaton’s play. Sometimes movies that are about “Hollywood” feel a little self indulgent, but this one staves some of that off by keeping its characters human. Still the actors playing actors are mostly just self centered jerks. Riggan worries that when he dies his obituary won’t be on the front page, which is singular concern of the famous. “You’re not an actor, you’re a celebrity,” a snooty theater critic tells him, and I was immediately filled with a familiar resentment towards NYC and its monopoly on “Art”.
The movie opens with a quote (I don’t remember it exactly), but the gist of it is about calling yourself “beloved”, so maybe I have to recant the statement I made in the paragraph above. This movie is about love. Or maybe it’s about self acceptance. I think everyone has experienced moments when they are disappointed in themselves and in that sense Riggan’s troubles do hit home. He’s tired of looking for approval from others, but he doesn’t know how to accept himself. “Love and admiration are two different things,” his ex-wife tells him at one point and this line feels like the only real statement on love the movie makes.
I have mixed feelings on Birdman, but I also really liked it. And I enjoy that about it. I appreciate being able to feel multiple ways about something, which is more than I can say for the super hero movies that Riggan both despises and yearns to return to.
Finally I must mention that it was a weird movie to watch so soon after Robin Williams’ suicide. I’ve only seen one other movie by director Alejandro González Iñárritu, 21 Grams, and it also starred Naomi Watts. In that movie I found something ambiguous (I guess I gotta Spoil Alert on 21 Grams too). I believe that Naomi Watts killed herself in 21 Grams, but I’m not sure. There’s a quick scene where she’s floating face down in a pool, but because the narrative of 21 Grams is not presented chronologically, it’s difficult to tell if she’s just floating or if she drowned herself.
In Birdman, Riggan tries to shoot himself, but like the character in Carver’s short story, he botches it. Then later at a hospital it’s suggested that he’s finally succeeded. This happens after a lengthy downward spiral, where Riggan begins to show signs of mental illness. I’m not sure what to take away. It felt like the wrong ending, but then again we can’t always do everything right.