‘Birdman’ triumphs, metafictional emotional rollercoaster ride

Michael Keaton speaking about his starring role in ‘Birdman’ at a press conference.  (Photo provided by commons.wikimedia.org)
Michael Keaton speaking about his starring role in ‘Birdman’ at a press conference. (Photo provided by commons.wikimedia.org)

“Birdman” is a distressing, arresting, jazzy thrill-ride; a film about a play which blurs the line between acting and reality and asks what truth really is.

Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton (“Need For Speed”), is an aging actor whose entire career is overshadowed by his role as Birdman, a comic book character he played over 20 years ago. Now, destitute in money and love, he is desperate to prove his legitimacy as an artist. Riggan takes one last gamble for relevance and adapts a Raymond Carver short story for the Broadway stage, which he will also direct and star in.

From the first preview, his project quickly goes to hell. He has difficulties with his supporting actor Mike, Edward Norton (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”), his daughter Sam, Emma Stone (“The Amazing Spider-Man 2”), and most of all, Birdman himself, who haunts the back of Riggan’s mind and confirms his worst fear: that he is nobody.

The most immediately remarkable part of this movie is its style of filming in one long take. With very few exceptions, there are no visible cuts in this movie. It is simply bizarre and while it might be jarring for the first few minutes, it becomes absolutely enthralling as the camera travels through the claustrophobic hallways of New York’s St. James Theatre, where most of the action takes place. Visuals are full of color, light, and dust, and get close enough to show the character’s spit and wrinkles. Sometimes the subtly shifting frame and shifts of focus can be distracting, but they are a part of the film’s chaotic aesthetic.

What really makes the movie is the air-tight performances. The actors’ egos clash on and off stage, and are alternatingly hilarious and horrifying. Keaton’s Golden Globe winning and now Oscar-nominated portrayal of Riggan as hateful, self-obsessed, yet ultimately sympathetic, is brilliant. “Birdman” gains a level of meta-fictional commentary with its clear parallels to Michael Keaton’s breakout performance in Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman.” Riggan is not exactly Keaton, but this biographical similarity gives his performance a very personal feel.

The supporting actors almost steal the show at times. Norton is a fun antagonist, as the egotistical, method-acting Broadway veteran on an obsessive search for authenticity. He hates Riggan for his mainstream success and makes things interesting at every turn. Stone’s portrayal of the neglected Hollywood daughter is a chilling counterpoint to her father. Ironically, both of them have also played famous parts in superhero movies. Stone actually worked on “Birdman” in between filming for “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.”

The daring camera style is complemented by an equally loose and out-there soundtrack. The tight, minimalist jazz drumming perfectly complements the shifting tones and tempos of the movie. The drummer actually appears as a background character in some scenes, and becomes part of the film’s subversion of reality, a nice bowtie on the whole surreal package.

Commanding performances, the uniquely fluid, continuous camera and a powerful soundtrack all combine to make “Birdman” an absolute treat.

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