Birdman is the latest addition to the already well-furnished sub-genre of films about how hard it is being a writer/actor. Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, a washed-up movie star best known for playing Birdman in a popular series of superhero films. He’s trying to salvage his career by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway play, but first he has to battle his volatile co-star (Edward Norton), his drugged-up daughter (Emma Stone) and some pretty hefty inner demons.
True originality is rare in films, and while many of the themes and ideas of Birdman have been explored elsewhere, the way this story is told is completely unique. Set in the final few days before the opening of the play, there are almost no camera cuts in the film (see Rope). The long takes and elaborate back-and-forth dialogue mean the demands on the actors are more like a play than a film; an interesting approach for a film about the differences between the two.
Keaton is fantastic in the lead role, playing on the parallels to his own life. However, even though he played Batman 20 years ago, he’s made many wise career choices and isn’t the desperate, washed-up loser he’s portraying. He handles every aspect of the film well, showing his character’s desperation but never letting the film feel bleak or depressing. Edward Norton is also outstanding, skillfully playing someone who’s actually a better actor than he is. The two bounce off each other in the film’s most memorable and entertaining scenes.
It’s Kaufman-esque in both its themes – the struggling creative – and its general weirdness, managing to be darkly comic and philosophical. Its only real problem is not knowing when to end, flitting between possible outcomes in an attempt to be unpredictable. As it’s so different from the other films out there this really isn’t necessary, and is a shame given how fast and snappy most of the film is. The dialogue is tightly written and delivered quickly to keep it gripping throughout, even as Riggan loses his grip on reality.
Ingeniously shot, cleverly written and brilliantly acted, this is a must-see film about film.