Review: Birdman

Birdman poster

It’s not uncommon for a famous film star to enhance their acting credentials by applying themselves to another medium, be it television or the stage. While people are generally supportive of these endeavours, nobody ever stops to ask what impact it will have on one’s family and friends, or whether the public will appreciate their newfound talent.

For years, Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) has been typecast as the feathered superhero Birdman, a role which he played in no less than three films. Annoyed with constantly being likened to that franchise, Thompson has made the bold move of writing, producing, directing and being the star of his own Broadway play, in the hope that he will finally be ridded of Birdman recognised as a professional performer.

Riggan’s transition from screen-to-stage hasn’t been a smooth one, as his play has been beset by multiple problems in the lead-up to opening night, including financial difficulties, a pretentious critic (Lindsay Duncan), the voice inside his head and interference from his male co-star, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). Worst of all, Riggan is having to deal with his recently-rehabilitated daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who neither supports nor respects him for his undertakings.

As much as it tries to convince one otherwise, it’s pretty obvious that Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue or Ignorance) – for that is the film’s official title – is an allegory for Hollywood, and there’s no harm in that. It allows the feature to explore some interesting discussions that only gossip columnists tend to reflect on, like whether it’s possible for a celebrity to reconnect with a loved one, or how far they’d go to earn the respect of their peers, or whether they should care about criticism.

While these deliberations are intriguing, it’s the more unusual and unique traits of Birdman that make it so fascinating to watch. One such trait is the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, who makes it appear as though the movie is shot in one take – a single camera constantly follows the characters around, uninterrupted by either cuts or transitions. Accompanying that is the score of Antonio Sanchez, the majority of which consists of a sole drum kit, and matches the film’s tone perfectly.

Also helping to make Birdman special is its stellar cast, central to which is Michael Keaton. In an Academy Award-nominated performance, he gets to showcase his range and his comic timing with a vulnerable protagonist who is bizarre and eccentric, yet relatable. Supporting Keaton is some truly magnificent talent, including Zack Galifianakis (in an unusually-subdued role), Andrea Riseborough, Naomi Watts and Amy Ryan, as well as the names of those mentioned above.

If there was any criticism, it would be directed towards the film’s third act. It’s at this point where Birdman is at its most surreal, with no adequate explanation as to what is happening, or why, and made even more confusing by the rushed pacing. Additionally, there isn’t much “comedy” to speak of, despite it being promoted as such – most moments elicit only chuckles, with only one evoking a proper laugh from viewers.

Peculiar without being pretentious, Birdman is an absorbing experience about what actors go through when they’re away from the limelight. While worth viewing for its cinematography and soundtrack alone, the film deserves particular commendation for producing a career-best performance from industry veteran Michael Keaton.

4 stars

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