Michael Keaton delivers a scintilating performance as a washed up has-been actor trying to revive his career with a show on Broadway. This is a play within a play within a film, and it’s brilliant. Rarely do films this unique show up on as mainstream a radar as the Oscar nomination list, but this year we’ve been gifted with two. Birdman pushes boundaries, breaks walls (at least one – the 4th), and has been rewarded with a host of nominations including best actor, best supporting actor, best supporting actress, best director, best screenplay, and best cinematography (and sound mixing and sound editing).
Out of all the nominees, this is one of the films I’ve most wanted to see again after the initial viewing. Edited to look like it is shot in one continuous take (this was director Alejandro González Iñarritu’s original intention) almost the entirety of the film takes place in and in the immediate surrounds of the prestigious St James Theatre on Broadway during the final days leading up to the opening night of a production being staged by, and starring, Keaton’s character Riggan who is struggling to shake the shadow of his iconic superhero character of Birdman.
In the meantime, predictably enough, things go wrong. A main character is injured during rehearsal and a replacement must be found on short notice, he must deal with tight finances, harsh critics, and an at-times uncooperative cast. His ex-wife shows up, his daughter (who works at the theatre) gets involved, and his past haunts him from over his shoulder (in more ways than you might imagine). Anyone who has been around a theatre will notice numerous in-jokes and easter eggs, and the whole thing is punctuated by snappy dialogue, cinematography, and a soundtrack of drums which echo the mood so seamlessly that you only notice them when the camera pans past the guy playing on a drum kit.
I’m not sure what to make of this film. The Oscar nomination will surely push it into the mainstream, since it’s a difficult film to classify. Edward Norton is excellent as an uncooperative cast member, and Emma Stone is brilliant as Riggan’s fresh-out-of-rehab daughter. Also look out also for Zach Galafianakis in a ‘serious’ deadpan role. It weaves together many sub plots and themes together seamlessly, while also being very clever about it… and perhaps too clever.
More than most, this film challenges the viewer, and doesn’t give easy answers away. While this is in my opinion one of the things that makes it good, the ‘establishment’ may not appreciate it as much, having gotten used to films which spoon-feed the audience with their own expectations. It is just a little too weird for me to back for best picture. The cinematography is not only well-done, but unusual in its concept, and I feel that might be enough for it to take that prize. The writing will come down to a matter of taste, but as I mentioned before, it may be too clever for its own good. A less passive film than most, and a good contender; unusual and challenging, I wish more films were made like this.