Starring Michael Keaton, Emma Stone & Edward Norton
It’s a brave move, you know. I don’t mean having almost the entire film take place in one shot (although that’s the brave move you’ll hear about), or having major Hollywood actors play nasty, self-critical versions of themselves (you might hear a little about that too). These are brave decisions as well, but not the ones I’m referring to- I mean having a subtitle. Subtitles haven’t been cool since Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Subtitles are so uncool JJ Abrams broke all the rules of grammar to include one without stigma for Star Trek Into Darkness (and good luck working out how to say that without sounding like an ass). So Birdman; Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, is a brave title, which is thankfully backed up by a very brave film.
Birdman follows washed up Hollywood actor Riggan Thomson (Keaton), best known for his work as the titular character in the ‘Birdman’ films, trying to get himself appreciated as an actor by putting on an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love‘ which he is directing and starring in. But after replacing another actor with Mike Shiner (Norton), Riggan’s relationships with his fresh-out-of-rehab daughter and girlfriend start to break down as he struggles for control of the play. Oh, and he’s developing mind powers, able to levitate himself, and Birdman talks to him inside his head. Or maybe he’s just going mad. Your call.
As can be seen from that synopsis, Birdman has a surfeit of plots, sprouting them off and then chopping them off in the same moment. And it sounds like Oscar bait- especially that rehab plotline. But Birdman refuses to dwell, even for a second, thanks to the whole film- or almost all of it- taking place in one long shot, set over three days or so, as the camera roves from room to room in a capacious New York theatre and occasionally outside it, to the street or a local bar or even into the sky.
I’m divided about the worth of long-duration shots; often they’re an excuse by the director to show off, and add little to the plot or atmosphere- as parodied excellently by the opening of The Player and, weirdly, JCVD. But in Birdman, the ‘oner’ is not a dull, sterile technical achievement, but something that (with ample help from a jazz drum soundtrack) makes the film feel infectiously energetic. As the camera sweeps dizzyingly around, we’re drawn into Riggan’s collapsing world, a feeling added to even by the digital stabilisation added to some sections- where the screen wobbles slightly as the computer tries to keep the image stable, we’re reminded not of the artifice of filmmaking, but of Riggan’s shifting reality. It could have been disastrous, after all; comedies are supposed to live and die on the timing of the performances, something that can’t be adjusted in a single shot. But it works perfectly, and added to its overall fit with the themes and atmosphere of the film, the oner is well justified- every move is well framed, each shot choice aimed at exposing story and performance.
Those performances, by the way, are definitely exposed well. The film is a dark comedy, the sort that makes you laugh only because you have no other choice. Where a movie like this could be pretentious, it has a healthy disregard for itself; both Keaton (as a washed-up superhero actor) and Norton (as a controlling, egotistical usurper of projects) parody themselves mercilessly, and several lines take potshots at various audience demographics. The work on performance and plot present in this film shows that director Alejandro González Iñárritu – of Babel and Amore Perros fame- has not lost his touch for incisive observation of human relations; this is a film which bares its claws, which is not afraid to be honest as much as it is a fake production.
That honesty serves Birdman well in its more dramatic moments, as the film takes on some weighty themes. It’s not really a movie about a midlife crisis- because that’s been done a thousand times before- but about a daughter growing to love her father, the breakdown of a marriage, the resurgence of old love between two people who previously lost it.
In an award season which, like every other, will come to rely on sentimental, overwrought, surprisingly mild but apparently ‘controversial’ films from old Hollywood hands, Birdman tells us: you needn’t pick between art and pornography. If you ask nicely- and maybe if Alejandro González Iñárritu is involved- you can have both.