There are no half-measures in the magic-realist Birdman, director/co-screenwriter Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest feature. The movie focuses on a floundering Hollywood actor, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), attempting to gain some semblance of respectability and artistic grace working on Broadway for the first time. The film has a kinetic style (shot as if in one continuous take) that exhilarates as well as agitates, perfectly mimicking the internal life of its wounded protagonist. Birdman goes big from its opening snare-drum-score credit sequence, flies high for the next two hours and rarely falters.
Back in the 1990s, Thomson was hot stuff. He was the star of his own blockbuster superhero franchise, Birdman, and he dominated the box office. Times have radically changed for Thomson 20 years later, however. His family life is in shambles, and his personal head space is troubled and getting worse. His route to artistic self-worth? Thomson adapts Raymond Carver’s story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” for the stage, directs it and stars in it. It’s an ambitious gamble, but one he’s desperate to take on. Until he isn’t.
Saddled with a terrible co-lead, Thomson is forced to cut the actor just a day before the first preview. As a replacement, he lands the combustible Mike (Edward Norton) to take over the role. Mike makes for great performances and great box office, but he also has a way to disrupt the production in grandiose (and hilarious) ways, making Thomson’s life all the more difficult and unpredictable.
Birdman, as well as Iñárritu and ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, soars when the narrative starts to tighten up with angst and leans over the edge of showbiz satire, staring straight into the caustic black abyss of shattered expectations. But Birdman is no downer: Plenty of scenes cut emotionally deep, particularly the one where Thomson goes off on the most influential theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) in the city. The ensemble cast breathes life into the proceedings throughout, and the highly choreographed sequences are mesmerizing.
Birdman centers on Keaton, however, and although he has delivered plenty of fine performances over the decades, he’s never been better than here and shows great depth in the subtlest facial expressions and line deliveries. Keaton takes risks, as does Iñárritu, and the result is that he delivers one of the best performances in one of the finest, most original movies of the year. This is what we talk about when we talk about cinematic love. [Derek Hill] [Editor’s note: This is Derek Hill’s last review for Flagpole (at least for a while). He is moving on from Athens.]
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