“How did we end up here? This place is horrible. Smells like balls. We don’t belong in this shithole.”
Thus speaks Birdman, or at least a version of that comic book character whose gravelly voice constantly echoes in the head of the actor who played him on the big screen, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton who, as Tim Burton’s Batman, must know a thing or two about being haunted by a superhero role). It often feels like we in the audience are also in Thomson’s head, seeing the world through his distorted point of view. I mean, he doesn’t actually have superpowers in real life, does he?
The film takes place during the week of previews leading to the opening night of a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love written, produced and directed by Thomson, who also stars in it. Clearly, he intends to make a big statement with this play, to finally be taken seriously as more than a guy who used to run around in tights in a lucrative movie franchise. According to his inner Birdman voice, this is all an excuse for a lot of “talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit”, but that is not true of the film Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu cowrote and directed.
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” is full of humor and energy and bravado, it’s a hyperkinetic backstage yarn with surreal overtones not unlike “Black Swan”. Almost entirely shot in a series of stunning long takes set to a percussive score by Antonio Sánchez, “Birdman” could also be described as a feature-length version of the warehouse scene in “Punch-Drunk Love” crossed with the TV station sequence in “Magnolia”. It’s a veritable technical tour de force the way cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera relentlessly wanders around the sets, never missing a beat.
Equally impressive is the way all the actors not only hit their marks, but also deliver stellar performances. There’s been a lot of hype about how great Michael Keaton is in the lead and he is, but he often comes close to having the film stolen away from him by Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough and especially Emma Stone. Heck, even Zach Galifianakis does wonderful work here!
Everyone in the cast is amazing, really, passionately bringing the their characters to vibrant life and biting into the snappy dialogue, much of it is about acting itself, an insane profession if there ever was one. The screenplay is hardly subtle, in fact, it’s very on the nose and in your face, but I loved it all the same. This is absolutely electrifying filmmaking, a cast and crew firing on all cylinders, all over Broadway and in one particularly memorable scene, right on Times Square!
It’s easily the best film of Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu’s career so far. I almost want to say it’s a masterpiece, but let’s wait a few years, all right?