In one word, Birdman is brilliant. In several words it’s somber, intelligent, scathing, existential, satirical, breath-taking, allegorical, and hilarious. And that’s only in the first half of the film. After three viewings, I’ve found that the genius of this brutally dark comedy lies in the fact that I was blown-away by the desperately beautiful performances the first time I saw it; but I couldn’t stop thinking about the magnificently malignant characters. I simply had to revisit them. The film’s deliciously quote-worthy dialogue is so authentic and forceful, I had to relish it again and again. That’s not to say the film isn’t visually stunning. It absolutely is. The breath-taking special effects run the gamut from subtle to savage. Any viewer who enjoys exceptional cinematography will walk away well sated.
Without a shadow of doubt, Riggan Thomson is Michael Keaton’s magnum opus. One can’t help but wonder if the utter desperation and regret Keaton flawlessly channels doesn’t come straight from the core of his own battered psyche. Keaton’s ability to project his character’s melancholia is so artfully expressed it practically seeps from his pores. But it’s delivered with a subtlety that still manages to gut-punch the viewer so well that Riggan’s weariness and depression can never be mistaken for ennui, even when the delivery is so ridiculously comical. Emma Stone is amazing in her uncanny ability to inhabit the uncomfortable skin of her discontent character, Sam. As Riggan’s extremely jaded daughter, she suggests both cynicism and wisdom far beyond her years. The chemistry between these two actors lends itself to a poignant portrayal of a Father-Daughter relationship fraught with resentment and regret. In fact, the performances are so masterfully depicted, at time they’re uncomfortably voyeuristic. The “basement” scene between Riggan and Sam is particularly difficult to watch. It is akin to accidentally walking in on a harsh family argument and having no way to intervene or walk away.
Edward Norton has a notable reputation both for the intense characters he chooses to tackle as well as being difficult to work with. His spirited performance as the arrogant and volatile Mike Shiner, a stereotypical Broadway darling, only lends itself to proving those notions. Throughout Birdman, Norton seems to relish his opportunity to lampoon his own notoriety with aplomb. Mike has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, aside from his rakish grin. When he isn’t being a drunken bastard or trying to rape his ex-girlfriend, he’s plunging head-first into the method of his craft with no concern for anyone around him. In fact, he’s pretty pathetic. So, how does Norton manage to make the viewer care? I’ll let you be the judge of that.
The most surprisingly understated performances belongs to Zach Galifianakis and Amy Ryan. Galifianakis plays Riggan’s long-suffering lawyer and friend, Jake. Every time Jake walks into a room, he’s a stressed-out bundle of anxiety. Yet, Galifianakis miraculously manages to keep Jake the most centered person in the room. Ryan is Sylvia Thomson, Riggan’s ex-wife and mother of Sam. Sylvia’s genuine affection for the man who once threw a knife at her (hence their divorce) and her difficult daughter allows Ryan to bring to fruition the most tender and poignant moments found in Birdman.
For this lover of the golden age of the black and whites, Birdman quickly brings to mind an array of predecessors. With its long takes and clever cuts, it’s reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Rope. Riggan’s irrelevance as a washed-up actor unable to cope with the changing world around him mirror’s that of Norma Desmond (played by the incomparable Gloria Swanson) in Sunset Boulevard. Theatre critic Tabatha Dickinson (deftly played by Lindsay Duncan) is practically All About Eve’s acerbic critic Addison DeWitt (portrayed by the debonair George Sanders) in drag. Birdman also boasts the kinetic frenzy seen in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, which as a side note won an Oscar for Dianne Wiest who played her own oversexed has-been, aka Norma Desmond, as Helen Sinclair.
So, with all of these notable forerunners, it’s a wonder Birdman solidly manages to prove itself something altogether unique — an authentic and admirable film about thespians for thespians that we’ve in effect never witnessed before. But will enjoy seeing again and again.