Utilizing the extremely challenging one-shot method, filmmaker Alejandro Iñárritu, who also co-writes and produces, has adapted Raymond Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" as a play, which is the focus of "Birdman".
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton, in a stellar performance), is a Hollywood star known for his superhero character, Birdman. Exhausted by angst and poor life decisions, Riggan wishes to prove his legitimacy as an actor by mounting this Broadway production at the historic St. James Theatre. The play, revolving around the theme of the search for love and acceptance, seems to be a mirror of poor Riggan's present day existence.
His current lover, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), is one of the actors in his play, as well as Lesley (Naomi Watts), who is making her much dreamed-of Broadway debut. When the fourth actor is suddenly injured on set, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) steps in to save Riggan's butt.
Currently living with Lesley, Shiner is a Broadway legend, capable of filling the house. He's also a loose cannon, known for outrageous antics and drinking. But Riggan's best friend and show producer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis) insists that they hire Shiner, and that Riggan make it work.
To further complicate matters, Riggan's daughter Sam (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab, is working as his "assistant", though their relationship is tenuous, at best. Occasionally, Riggan's ex-wife and Sam's mother, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), shows up to lend her support, despite Riggan's horrible treatment of her.
It's an understatement to declare that a lot is going on in "Birdman". Shot in 30 days in New York City, primarily at the St. James, Inarritu and his crew worked tirelessly preparing the actors for this difficult shoot. Co-written by Iñárritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo, the dialogue had to be fast-paced and spot-on because there is no time for mistakes.
The actors were required to rehearse endlessly, because once the camera started, helmed by Emmanuel Lubezki (Oscar winner 2014 for "Gravity"), a scene would go on unbroken, with actors entering and exiting in perfect timing. Thus the film has the feel of a play.
Keaton, Norton, Watts, Stone, Riseborough and Galifianakis were all intrigued and blown away by this process, which Watts found to be "exhilarating". And the end result proved the experience to be a worthy one.
Each of these actors has never been better. Keaton is phenomenal --- his washed-up, has-been Riggan trying so hard to accomplish something different, while his alter-ego Birdman whispers discouraging diatribes in his head. It's a tour-de-force performance, considering the one-shot filming. His scene destroying his dressing room must have felt triumphant --- to have done that in one take.
Norton, too, is magnetic. I have always felt that he has been so underused in film. Since his breakout performance in "Primal Fear", Norton has mesmerized on screen. As Mike, he provokes and tests Riggan, and intrigues Sam. He's not a good person, but he is a great Broadway thespian.
The rest of the cast is terrific, especially Watts, but I am most surprised by Stone. Not a huge fan, though I found her charming in "Magic in the Moonlight" this past summer, as Sam, Stone enters new ground. She doesn't whine or stamp her feet --- she comes across as a legitimate rehab baby with real issues concerning an absentee father. Her scenes with Keaton are realistic, and even touching, when she comes to terms with his flaws and hers.
I may have forgotten to mention that "Birdman" is a comedy --- a black comedy. I didn't love every single aspect of this well-written screenplay, but I wholly admire the good/great stuff. As soon as Riggan goes to the stage door for a cigarette before his final scene in the play on opening night, you immediately know what will happen, but it's still hilarious watching Riggan parading through the streets around the St. James Theatre in his tighty whities --- not soon to be forgotten.
"Birdman" is a very unusual movie-going experience. For that matter alone, it's worth a trip to the cinema.
Opinion: See It Now
With an acclaimed cast and an ambitious idea for filming his latest movie, Mexican director Alejandro Iñárritu's presents "Birdman". It's a story he co-wrote with three friends about a former movie star who wants to resurrect his career, reinvigorate his self-esteem, and give his life new meaning with a play on Broadway.
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) was a cinematic superhero called Birdman. But after doing two films in the series, he declined to do any more, much like Keaton did in real life after playing Batman. So he decides to put on a play at the St. James Theatre in Times Square --- an actual locale --- entitled "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love", based on Raymond Carver's short story.
When an accident nearly kills one of the main players during a rehearsal, Riggan turns to the notorious and mercurial actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), at the behest of Shiner's girlfriend, Lesley (Naomi Watts), who is also in the play. Shiner is well-known and will help to sell tickets, critical since Riggan is putting up his life savings to make the play a reality, but Riggan and Shiner are like oil-and-water.
To complicate things, Riggan is dealing with a lot of issues, including his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), and their daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who is his personal assistant just out of rehab. Because of daddy's movie career, he wasn't around much during Sam's upbringing. Plus, a quintessential critic from the New York Times (Lindsay Duncan) promises to derail the play with a brutal review, without ever seeing the play.
There is also the matter of Riggan being haunted, and sometimes taunted, by the voice and appearance of his former Birdman character, his alter ego. In a few supernatural sequences, Riggan flies through the air between New York City buildings, a la Spider-Man, but without sticky webbing shooting from his fingers.
Zach Galifianakis plays Riggan's best friend and producer, Jake. They worked together on the Birdman films, but now Riggan is driving Jake to madness with the play. It's a new kind of performance for the "Hangover" comedian, and he handles it well.
In fact, all the actors faced a most unusual challenge in that Inarritu wanted every scene shot continuously --- no multiple takes, no second chances, no improvisation, no editing later. Clearly, "Birdman" is not your typical movie.
There was enormous pressure on everybody associated with "Birdman" --- not just the cast, but most notably the camera crew, as well. No one wanted to be the individual that messed it up for all the others. To a person, the actors found it exhilarating, and praised their director for his insights and leadership. One actress, Ryan, noted how unusual it was to work on a film with the entire company present.
The end result for moviegoers is a fascinating look at what goes into a Broadway play, and what can go wrong. When Riggan slips outside for a smoke during a break in the play, his robe is caught in the door as it shuts behind him. But he must return to the stage, somehow. The next thing you know, Riggan Thomson is all over social media in his underwear -- but the show must go on.
"Birdman" is a comic drama, and it features strong performances from the entire cast, especially Keaton. He has built a varied career, and his turn as Riggan Thomson may be his crowning achievement.
As for Iñárritu, this movie adds to his short but impressive resume for direction, his other notable efforts being "Babel" (for which he was Oscar nominated), "Amores Perros", "Biutiful" and "21 Grams", where his female lead, Naomi Watts, earned her first Academy Award nomination. "Birdman" is a film that warrants a second viewing, if only to experience the nuances of the director's style and unique approach to his craft.
Opinion: See It Now!