Review – Birdman

At one point in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s fluidic and freewheeling latest a character points out to Michael Keaton’s actor-on-the-edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown that he “confuses love for admiration”.

Birdman is a very good piece of work, at times brilliant; I just wish I could have soared with it as much as I'd hoped

Birdman is a very good piece of work, at times brilliant; I just wish I could have soared with it as much as I’d hoped

It’s a charge that can be levelled at Birdman; a whirlwind of industrial wizardry and an actor’s dream that’s very easy to admire, but more difficult to love.

It will be fascinating to see how Birdman is regarded in five or 10 years time. Iñárritu has a habit of making films that profess to profundity at the time of release, but come to be dismissed as the river of time flows; his English-language debut 21 Grams (2003) and its emperor’s new clothes follow-up Babel (2006) in particular.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) and his nemesis/alter ego in Birdman

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) and his nemesis/alter ego in Birdman

One suspects his latest will weather more favourably, if for no other reason than the career-defining central performance by Keaton, an actor whose scarcity in front of the camera is all-the-more tragic in light of his turn as the calamitous and anxiety-ridden Riggan Thomson.

Thomson has ploughed his finances and fragile soul into staging a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story in the hope of injecting new life into a flagging career defined by playing the superhero Birdman in a series of big budget movies.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) prepares for opening night with fellow actor Lesley (Naomi Watts) and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) in Birdman

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) prepares for opening night with fellow actor Lesley (Naomi Watts) and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) in Birdman

His troupe of actors includes the deeply insecure Lesley (Naomi Watts) and the revered, but unpredictable Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), while backstage his best friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) tries to keep the production afloat and he struggles to connect with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone). With opening night fast approaching, the cracks in Riggan’s splintered psyche start to widen and the voice of Birdman in his head manifests itself in his everyday life.

Keaton has spoken in interviews of the huge technical demands placed on the cast to ensure they hit their marks so as not to spoil one of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s lengthy shots, which have been masterfully stitched together to give the impression of a single, unbroken take.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) goes toe-to-toe with method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) in Birdman

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) goes toe-to-toe with method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) in Birdman

As a technical feat, it’s second-to-none and Lubezki deserves his plaudits for a job very well done. However, the many tricks Birdman has up its sleeves end up getting in the way of the film itself and become a distraction from the character-led comedy drama going on in spite of everything else. Similar accusations have been levelled on Wes Anderson’s work, which has often divided critics and filmgoers alike.

The film has some interesting things to say about what constitutes art in the social media age and cheekily gives Thomson the final word when confronted by an embittered theatre critic (played by Lindsay Duncan) who promises to wield the Sword of Damocles on the play because she hates what he stands for.

Riggan Thomson's long-suffering daughter Sam (Emma Stone) in Birdman

Riggan Thomson’s long-suffering daughter Sam (Emma Stone) in Birdman

By focusing so tightly on the emotionally fractured Thomson, Iñárritu asks us to question what is and isn’t real, right until the film’s final shot. Meanwhile, the presence of Birdman is akin to a winged devil on his shoulder whom Thomson must confront if he is to salvage his imploding soul.

Bottled up within the claustrophobic confines of the theatre for the most part, the wild ride the camera takes is matched by Antonio Sánchez’s jittery jazz drum score, which rattles around in the head, but doesn’t distract as much as some critics have suggested.

Birdman is a very good piece of work, at times brilliant; I just wish I could have soared with it as much as I’d hoped.

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23 comments

  1. Dan O. · February 3, 2015

    The ensemble is great, but it’s Keaton who totally walks away with this movie on his own shoulders. Good review.

  2. theipc · February 3, 2015

    Very nice, Sailor!

  3. Keith · February 3, 2015

    Brilliant review. I’m really glad to read someone who had very similar reactions to mine. As you say, Birdman is an easy film to admire. It does a lot of remarkable things. But I too wonder how it will be viewed five years down the road. I love it cinematography but I too think it sometimes distracts. And while it does try to say some things, I don’t think it’s near as profound as it wants to be.

    I appreciate Birdman, but I just couldn’t love it like so many others do.

    • Three Rows Back · February 4, 2015

      Cheers Keith; thought I might get a bit of grief for not lavishing unconditional love on this!

  4. ruth · February 4, 2015

    Wonderful review! I think how much this film really *soared* (to use your terminology) depends on how emotionally engaging one feels about it. I happen to find it entertaining as well as poignant, and the style never overwhelms the story IMHO. It’s definitely a technical and cinematic feat and glad we agree that Keaton is absolutely brilliant here. Nice to see him being recognized now after being overlooked for so many years.

    • Three Rows Back · February 4, 2015

      Completely agree with you about Keaton; a great leading man and character actor too. I totally understand anyone who disagrees with me and loves the film. To be honest, I was a little confused as to why I didn’t love it. But there you go!

  5. Brittani · February 4, 2015

    Great review! I loved this movie so much. I can’t wait to see it again.

    • Three Rows Back · February 4, 2015

      Thank you! You obviously enjoyed this more than me, although it has moments of briliance to be sure.

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  7. Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop · February 5, 2015

    Got a point here mate. It’s definitely an easier film to admire than one to love. I did really like it though and i’m still thinking about it now, a month or so later. Definitely one I’d need to see again though before saying that I loved it. Great review mate.

    • Three Rows Back · February 5, 2015

      Thanks mate. I’ll be interested to ponder on it again after a second viewing. I may yet change my mind!

  8. Mark Walker · February 5, 2015

    I have to say, I’m a big fan of this. I thought it was brilliantly directed and acted. I normally can’t stand Keaton but he was superb here. Great to see Norton delivering the goods again too.

    • Three Rows Back · February 5, 2015

      Yeah, I can completely see why you’d love it mate. I can’t quite understand why I didn’t love it, but Keaton especially was superb.

  9. Andrew · February 5, 2015

    This feels like a really honest and balanced perception of a film receiving a lot of hyperbole right now. I haven’t watched this yet (but I just purchased it, so probably tomorrow), so I’ll weigh in then, but this is a great review!

    • Three Rows Back · February 5, 2015

      I always try to be honest Andrew. Will be interested to see what you think.

  10. Tom · February 6, 2015

    There is no question ‘Birdman’s’ critical adoration is borderline overwhelming. I loved it, but man is it so refreshing to see a review that’s not steeped in hyperbole, as Andrew above has dually noted. I was responsible for that as well. I am going to be very curious as to see how I take it in a second go-around. I’ve been meaning to do that for awhile, but other things keep getting in the way! Why is blogging such a full-time job dude?! 😉

    • Three Rows Back · February 8, 2015

      Well, if you loved the film Tom then shout from the rooftops about it. I have no problem with people who give an arguement as to why they love (or don’t love) something. As for what you say about blogging being a full-time job; yeah, it can feel that way sometime can’t it? I’ve relaxed my output a little on the blog and am putting a review a week on. I see some guys putting stuff on every day and I can’t fathom that. Some of this stuff is “I really loved it!” or “I really hated it!” laziness that isn’t actually a review, but some other guys are churnig out interesting stuff on a daily basis. Where do they get the time!!

      • Tom · February 8, 2015

        We are in lock-step in that thinking man. I’m always impressed with the people who have reviews — legitimate reviews — published if not daily, then every-other day or something like. I’ve somewhat slowed my pace recently, I think I average 3 a week now (still a lot, as my bank account keeps reminding me. . . lol!) but it’s still fun.

        Although after seeing something like Jupiter Ascending, my passion seems to have wilted a bit! Hahah. IF you choose to see that one, I can’t wait to hear your report.

  11. Movie Quibble · February 8, 2015

    It’s fading from my memory extremely quickly. Definitely a one-trick-pony. Or a one-take-bird, in this case.

    • Three Rows Back · February 8, 2015

      Nicely put! I fancy revisiting this at some point in the future when the hype has died down to see if it stands up. Hmmmm, not sure at the moment if it will.

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