Widely praised by critics, Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) has finally landed. The closing film of the 29th Leeds International Film Festival last year, this crazy, swooping joy-ride of movie directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu has been on the lips of critics everywhere ever since its UK premiere.
Michael Keaton returns to our screens as the titular ‘hero’ once more, playing Riggan Thomson, a former winged-superhero movie star trying to rebuild his reputation by starring, adapting and directing a Broadway play. He is joined by an impressive cast, all in someway connected to his ill-fated adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. Zack Galifianakis is his best ever, shrugging off his perpetual hangover-days and unveiling a frustrated neurotic producer, desperate to save the play at whatever cost. The excellent Andrea Riseborough is Thomson’s put-upon actress girlfriend who is increasingly fascinated by the leading lady, Lesley played by Naomi Watts. Watts adds shades of her former role in Mullholland Drive (2001)- a woman dreaming of her ‘big break’, even as the world around her collapses. While Ed Norton stirs up the tension as man-child maverick thesp Mike Shiner and hilariously embodies the rampant narcissism that is so easy to imagine in the personality of an actor. Emma Stone once again holds her own as Thomson’s neglected daughter and personal assistant. Fresh from rehab, she rudely awakens Thomson to the responsibilities of fatherhood and the nature of celebrity in the age of social media.
Seemingly shot all in one take with some expert cuts, the continuous shots and long takes wonderfully recreate the confined pressure-cooker environment of a small theatre leading up to the opening night. Conversations in hallways, behind curtains or up in the rigging are uncovered and laid bare for us to listen in on. The narrative is structured into segments concerning the hurried preparations for each preview before their residency begins, each one as disastrous as the other.
As the trailer suggests, the film pays special attention to its wondrous special effects which are made all the more magical since you’re never really sure if it is all a whimsy of the protagonist. Thomson battles with his inner demon; an alter-ego taking the form of his most popular role, Birdman. Struggling to sleep, to hold his anarchic production and his crumbling family together, Thomson is at times a pitiful character, desperate to be taken seriously whilst also enjoying a penchant for self-destruction. His need for legend-status is granted in a way we least expect, highlighting the absurdity and bizarre nature of fame.
Of course, critics don’t get off lightly in this story. Nor should they. Lindsay Duncan has a small but memorable role as a powerful theatre critic who has the power to destroy or resurrect careers with the quick flourish of her pen. Acidic and acerbic, it is a terrifying insight to the love/hate relationship between the artists and critics on Broadway, and indeed in any hierarchical cultural society deemed capable what deciding what is worthy and what isn’t. Even when Raymond Carver, Thomson’s boyhood hero offers his review, it is arguably wholly disingenuous.
Strange, funny, surreal and at times awe-inspiring, Birdman is deserving of the buzz surrounding it. A film to talk about, to laugh and to wince at, Birdman is most certainly is an ‘event film’ with an impressive ensemble cast to boot. It is wonderful to see Michael Keaton on our screens again, reminding us just how charismatic of a performer he can be. When Thomson loses his temper, I did jokingly wonder if someone had uttered ‘Beetlejuice’ three times.