Strap yourselves in, because this is going to be a ride. Film reviewers (and this one in particular) love to use copious amounts of hyperbole to talk about a film they love, often to the point where you start to question if the film is actually that good, or if the reviewer is just feeling very generous/creative today. But there are exceptions - films that are just so goddamn good that no amount of praise or flashy adjectives can come close to capturing them, films that almost defy description, films that (like any truly great piece of cinema) need to be seen to be believed.
And that’s exactly what we have with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ‘Birdman: or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance’. So if you have any sense, stop reading this review and go see it now. Trust me.
Okay, well you’re still reading, so I guess you want to know what it’s about, yeah? Probably not what you’ll expect. Early in his acting career, Riggan (Michael Keaton) was lucky enough to have a hit playing the iconic superhero Birdman in a blockbuster film series. That was over a decade ago however, and his career has never been the same since. In an effort to reinvent himself as the serious actor he’d always wanted to be, he decides to turn to the theatre, starring and writing and directing an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. When one of his cast is involved in an accident, he is forced to turn to legendarily difficult Mike (Edward Norton) to fill the role. He’s brilliant and he’ll sell seats, but his combustible behaviour threatens to topple the production and Riggan’s sanity, which is already hanging by a thread as it is.
That’s the gist of it, but such a paltry summary doesn’t do justice to the extraordinary twists, turns and textures in this remarkable film. Rather than taking the route of a serious drama, ‘Birdman’ is unashamedly a raucous philosophical comedy, wringing as much potential out of the situation and circumstances as it can. The entire narrative is set around a Broadway theatre and the surrounding shops and bars, giving you the feeling that you might actually be watching a play. However, the technical wizardry of the film is the first thing that sets ‘Birdman’ apart from most cinema and also makes it so very cinematic. Working with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who won an Oscar last year for ‘Gravity’), Iñárritu presents the drama of Riggan and his team as a seemingly single unbroken shot that snakes its way through the backstages of the theatre and the streets of New York with startling kinetic energy. It’s a rule that is set and never broken, and gives the drama and comedy an immediacy and vitality it might not have had if it were cutting left, right and centre. The film moves at lightning speed, crackling with the wit of the screenplay, the playfulness of the cinematography and the thumping beat of Antonio Sanchez’s almost entirely drum-based score, all the while held together by Iñárritu’s minute and exacting direction. All of this magic behind the camera makes ‘Birdman’ a most unexpected beast, a cinematic roller-coaster ride as thrilling… no, more thrilling than any summer blockbuster.
What you have on the screen is probably one of the greatest ensembles you’ll ever see.
But that isn’t the half of it. What you have on the screen is probably one of the greatest ensembles you’ll ever see. There is not one member of this cast that you could fault, many of them delivering the finest performances of their careers. Michael Keaton is a neurotic revelation as Riggan, a man on the edge of sanity trying to legitimise his career choices and return to the love of his craft while the world battles against him. Keaton hasn’t been in such fine form in so long, and with this one performance, reminds us exactly why we shouldn’t forget him. Edward Norton also makes one hell of a return as maniacal Mike, throwing his whole body into his combustible performance. And finally breaking through to show how talented she actually is, Emma Stone is tremendous as Riggan’s estranged daughter and personal assistant Sam, her father’s greatest critic and only chance left at redemption. She radiates every moment she’s on screen. But then there’s Naomi Watts, Zack Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan and (spectacularly acidic) Lindsay Duncan, all who deserve mention and all knocking it out of the ballpark. This is an ensemble for the ages, built around a towering central performance.
See, I tried not to get caught up with the hyperbole, but there’s just no way around it with this one. ’Birdman: or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance’ is a film that aims high and soars above and beyond expectations. It’s a stirring meditation on art, acting, celebrity, superhero culture, the Hollywood system, theatre versus film, the role of the critic in art, dreams, aspirations, love lost and found, human beings crashing against one another, parents and children, and the power of cinema itself. And to top it off, it’s also ridiculously funny, endlessly thrilling and even has its fair share of spectacle and big, ballsy explosions. This is easily Alejandro González Iñárritu’s best film to date, and kicks off this cinematic year with a bang. So quit with this review, run out the door and get to the cinema as fast as you can to see this giddy and sublime masterpiece. You’ll probably find me there clamouring to see it again.