Mexico has given three wonderful presents to the movie world: three incredibly inventive directors. Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) is a master of the modern fantasy and Alfonso Cuaron is a genius with visuals as seen in movies such as Gravity and Children of Men. The third member of the trinity, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, is exceptional in observing the human condition and putting it on the screen in movies like 21 Grams, Babel, and Biutiful. He also gets Oscar-nominated performances from his actors in all of those movies. In Inarritu’s new movie Birdman, he borrows a bit from his two compatriots to make one of the most original and stunning movies in recent memory.
The movie mostly takes place in and around the St. James Theater on Broadway in New York City, though in the first scene we realize it also lives in the realm of magical realism. This literary genre, which is very popular in Latin America, presents fantastic scenes or images but in a meticulously realistic style (as defined by Merriam-Webster).
Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) is an actor known for being the superhero Birdman in three hugely-successful movies in the early 1990s, but then he walked away from the franchise. Now he’s strapped for cash and is trying to re-energize his career by adapting, directing, and starring in a Broadway play based on Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Just before the first preview, Riggan realizes the other male actor in the four-role play is not going to work. The actor is promptly injured by a falling light, and Riggan is sure he mentally made it happen.
While Riggan and his lawyer/partner Jake (Zach Galifianakis) suggest replacements – all of whom are busy doing superhero movies – the female lead Lesley (Naomi Watts) interrupts with news that Mike (Edward Norton), one of the best Broadway actors, is available and wants to do the play. While Mike gives the play (and the box office) a shot of adrenalin, he can be a monster to work with. The only place where he’s real and honest is when he’s on stage.
In the midst of the stress of the show, Riggan hears Birdman in his head, commenting on his life in a Christian Bale growl. His daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), recently out of rehab, is working as his assistant, though she brings along a load of parental resentment. Riggan is also in a relationship with the other actress in the play, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who might be pregnant by him. On top of this, they can’t seem to get through a preview performance without a catastrophe happening on stage.
While there have been movies about the verities vicissitudes of staging a play, Inarritu supercharges the film by having it appear to take place in one long seamless take, even as it covers a couple of weeks of time. He and his Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanual Lubezki (who worked with Cuaron on Gravity) have the camera glide through the theater and its maze-like backstage corridors as if it’s a character observing what’s happening. It meant that the actors had to do scenes that could stretch in length to the ten-minute range – eternity for a film actor – while they had to hit their multiple marks throughout in a specific number of steps while they spouted paragraphs of dialogue perfectly. In addition, you have the magical elements of the story that blend smoothly with the reality on the screen. It’s like doing a perfect performance of “Swan Lake” on a tightrope.
Forget about any comparisons between Riggan in the movie and Michael Keaton’s experience with Tim Burton’s version of Batman twenty-five years ago. Keaton is fearless as an actor and has lost none of the volcanic energy that made him a star in Night Shift, his first film role back in 1982. The performance is transcendent and mesmerizing.
That performance is also matched and ably supported by Norton, Stone, and Watts. Norton and Stone have both done superhero movies themselves (The Incredible Hulk and the last two Spiderman movies respectively), and Watts came close with the Peter Jackson remake of King Kong. It’s interesting too when the straightest role is done by Galifianakis. A pleasant discovery is Andrea Riseborough, who’s mostly worked in English movies like Happy-Go-Lucky and Made in Dagenham. She more than holds her own with all the others and is fascinating to watch. Rounding out the cast is Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) as Riggan’s former wife and Sam’s mother, and Lindsay Duncan as the reviewer for the Times.
The film’s score is almost all percussion, provided by jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez. The beat digs into your consciousness as you watch the film, giving the film its own heartbeat. In keeping with magic realism, a couple of times the camera pans past a drummer playing the music we hear in the scene.
Birdman is in limited release, so it may be hard to find a theater where it’s playing. It is well worth searching out, to revel in its originality as well as its commentary on the state of films today. Hopefully it will be nominated for a slew of awards in January and that will result in its wide release to multiplexes across the country. It deserves both the awards and the wide release.