On the Silver Screen – Birdman
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman marks my first cinema viewing of 2015 and we’re off to a good start. Michael Keaton plays washed up former superhero actor Riggan Thomson who is trying to relaunch his career as a serious actor.
Michael Keaton is the ideal choice to play this character as it’s something that arguably mirrors his life. Michael Keaton is still well known for playing Batman in the two Tim Burton movies featuring that character. Afterwards his career wasn’t as successful as he might have wanted so immediately the parallels can be drawn. Riggan Thomson is a very extreme example as I don’t think Keaton has had it all that bad since he stopped playing Batman. Sure he’s had some stinkers but for the most part he’s ran support quite capably.
He is absolutely note perfect as Riggan Thomson and manages to straddle the very thin lines between dark comedy, madness, drama and heartfelt sincerity with ease. On the surface it seems like Thomson has a deep sense of entitlement about where he feels his life should have ended up but when you drill down it’s obvious that he’s a hard working and ambitious artist who just needs a chance to prove himself. He has written and directed a play that he’s also starring in to try and show the world what he’s capable of. Repeated references are made to the fact that making this play happen cost him everything and a lot hinges on it being a success otherwise he’s ruined on a financial level as well as a creative and personal one. There is a lot of depth to Riggan and it’s easy to feel sympathetic for him as well as root for him to succeed. Hands down this is Keaton’s finest performance and might just give him the career invigoration that he deserves.
Edward Norton acts as more or less his primary antagonist as perfectionist method actor Mike Shiner. Shiner is brought into Thomson’s play after an accident incapacitates the actor previously in the role. It is said in the film that he has just quit/been fired from his last job and there are rumblings that he’s difficult to work with. Pretty much from the second he shows up, Shiner is eager to get input on the script and direction by forcing his opinions onto the production and generally walking around as if he owns the place. Norton plays this self parodying role perfectly and comes across as something of a likeable -as long as you never have to personally interact with him- jackass.
The scenes between Shiner and Thomson are among the strongest in the film showing the great range that these two actors have and how ably they bounce off each other. I am surprised that Norton is willing to play a character so in tune with his own public persona. All I know about the guy is what I’ve read but I’ve always liked him as an actor and this is one of his finest roles.
Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough and Amy Ryan make up the main supporting cast and play their parts well. A personal highlight for me was Emma Stone’s performance as Riggan’s former drug addict daughter who sees the world clearly in black and white. Zach Galifianakis also provides a notable dramatic performance as Riggan’s best friend, producer and lawyer.
It’s great that the actors commit to the self parody so completely otherwise this film simply wouldn’t have worked. The script manages to use the audience familiarity with Keaton and Norton’s past to poke fun at them in a way that would only resonate with Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in the roles. In particular, the name Birdman isn’t so far removed from.
The film uses this as a springboard to make a well thought out commentary on the current landscape of superhero movie domination. Robert Downey Jr, Jeremy Renner and Michael Fassbender are cited as specific examples of the success being enjoyed and there’s more than a little resentment on Riggan’s part that he never enjoyed anywhere near that level. It also blurs the line nicely between fiction and reality to such a degree that Michael Keaton could have used his real history and the film would have been pretty much the same. I dare say it’s no accident that 3 of the major roles in this film starred in superhero movies at one time or another.
Thomson is haunted by the voice of the Birdman character who pipes up regularly throughout the film trying to convince him to give people what they want and do another Birdman movie. It’s a good representation of Thomson’s inferiority complex and self doubt as the belief that he can actually be relevant again diminishes. This voice allows exploration of the perceived lack of art in the superhero genre. It’s a debate that continues to rage so it’s interesting to see a definitive stance on it. If this bubble ever bursts then Birdman will cease to be relevant but for now it has a finger firmly on the modern pulse. There’s a timeless quality in Riggan Thomson’s deconstruction of the role of the critic when it comes to entertainment. As a man reviewing this film I’ll try not to be offended but it’s hard to disagree with what was said.
Not only does the film make many points it punctuates them really nicely. For instance when Riggan Thomson is being tormented by his alter ego and gives into the prospect of giving the masses what they want the film punctuates this with a CGI set piece. It illustrates that particular point perfectly.
Most of this film works very well from the dark comedy to the character drama. It’s beautifully shot to look like one continuous take with a great claustrophobic atmosphere that brings the audience right into the feeling that the walls are closing in on Riggan Thomson. There are a couple of subplots that could have probably been cut but other than that everything lands really well.
A fantastic start to movie going in 2015. Birdman is the story of washed up former superhero actor Riggan Thomson trying to find relevance as an actor in the modern world.
Michael Keaton and Edward Norton turn in excellent performances as characters who are parodies of them. Both actors give career defining performances in roles that could only be played by them. The references to their own careers work really well and underpin much of the dark humour.
The film does a great job of offering commentary on the current landscape of superhero franchise domination. A case is put forward and nicely explored in a thought provoking way.
A strong supporting cast pads out the film with some great personalities with perhaps some slightly extraneous subplots that didn’t really need to be there. In general this is an excellent film that comments beautifully on the present.