Print Edition: November 5, 2014
The must-see spectacle of 2013 was Alfonso Curron’s technically brilliant Gravity, widely praised for its innovative use of the long take. This year’s Birdman, made by fellow Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, seeks to one-up the long takes of Gravity by seemingly having one continuous shot.
It isn’t a single take, but that in no way diminishes the superb camera work. Instead of cutting between characters, the camera glides to them, taking on a life of its own at times. The disembodied camera floating down hallways and stairs feels both surreal and exhilarating when paired with the upbeat jazz score. The behind-the-scenes story of a theatre production has never been more thrilling. Birdman is a bold technical exercise, and instead of the B-movie that Gravity was under the surface, Birdman has soul.
Michael Keaton plays Riggan, a washed-up ex-Hollywood superhero who is attempting to restart his career by staging and starring in a Broadway play. However, Riggan hasn’t left the past behind, and the Birdman character that made him famous still plagues his thoughts. He is a man divided; part of him longs for the glory days of Birdman, while part of him wants to prove critics wrong, showing them he is more than just a celebrity.
The internal turmoil of his life mirrors the external chaos of his stage play. In an act of fate, a falling camera takes out the sole incompetent actor working for him, who is replaced by the talented and egotistical Mike Shiner (Edward Norton in top form). At first Mike appears to be a godsend, but quickly becomes another obstacle for Riggan. Besides stealing the spotlight in the play, Mike also develops an interest in Riggan’s daughter (Emma Stone) who is fresh out of rehab and clearly has daddy-issues — and one of the female leads in the play claims to be pregnant with Riggan’s child. Stuffed to the brim with dramatic tension, Birdman is reminiscent of the high-speed comedy dramas of Howard Hawks.
Birdman is the first of two mainstream Hollywood satires this year, the second being David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (who also wrote the screenplay) fires shot after shot at the self-obsessed culture of Hollywood, which (at least in myth) was once confined to the California hills but has now transcended Tinseltown with the dawn of the internet. Now with Facebook and Twitter everyone is just a video post away from fame and — as Edward Norton reminds us after his massive on-stage erection goes viral — there is no such thing as bad press.
If there is a criticism to be made about Birdman, it’s that the film is over-ambitious. Alejandro seemingly throws all his ideas at us and the film moves at such a brisk pace that they all can’t be absorbed in a single viewing. A more restrained approach, focusing on fewer topics but in more detail instead of attempting to take on all of celebrity culture in 119 minutes, may have better served the film. However, despite the chaos, the film still works, thanks in no small part to the outstanding performances in the leading and supporting roles.