Birdman swoops in for Oscar gold

Birdman 01

Casting Michael Keaton as former movie superhero ‘Birdman’ was a stroke of genius in a film that is brilliantly conceived from beginning to end.


Between the first of October and the end of January, you can usually count on one or more movies that quickly make you forget all of the flash and bombast of the movies that had been out just a few months before. The time of superheroes, teenage dramas, special effects extravaganza and their kin is over. Now it’s time for the more thoughtful, adult, “meaningful” movies to light up the silver screen in the hopes of attaining good critical notices, big audiences and major awards. (Of course, there is another Hobbit movie coming so it won’t all be quiet dramas until 2015.)

One of those movies that critics love to dub “Oscar bait” has been slowly rolling out to theaters in major markets and is going wider now. That film is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough and Zach Galifianakis. That the film is being released during Oscar season is understandable because, well, it’s simply a brilliant piece of filmmaking.

The story centers on Riggan Thomas (Keaton), a once popular movie star whose fame came from playing the superhero Birdman (wink, wink). Faced with becoming simply a Trivial Pursuit answer, Riggan decides to mount a Broadway play that he will write, direct and star in. It’s a huge undertaking for someone who’s never been on Broadway, and an even bigger undertaking for a Hollywood movie star, the likes of which are usually looked down upon by seasoned Broadway thespians.

Sensing his show is going to be one of the biggest disasters Broadway has ever seen, Riggan replaces his male co-star in a most unorthodox way and secures a name who sells tickets on Broadway. Except Mike Shiner (Norton) takes the Method to the extreme and causes Riggan more problems than he really needs at this point. While trying to save his show and his career, Riggan risks losing his grip on sanity as the spectre of the Birdman continues to haunt him.

The casting of former Batman Michael Keaton helps blur the line between fact and fiction.

Iñárritu’s story is the blackest of comedies and a scathing attack on an actor’s ego (not to mention a theatre critic’s). It’s also a poison pen letter to Hollywood crassness as much as it is a slap in the face to Broadway snootiness. And while all of that sounds unappealing, it’s truly very, very funny (and even moreso for those who follow any facet of the entertainment industry). Of course, what helps sell the premise is the casting of former Batman Michael Keaton, helping to blur the line between the film’s fiction and the reality of Keaton’s career.

Deny as they might, audiences are certainly going to believe Keaton is playing a thinly veiled version of himself. Whether he is or isn’t (and I’m not aware of Keaton mounting his own Broadway show), Keaton is superb playing a man with a tenuous grip on reality, bravely exposing as much of his soul (and body) as he possibly can. It certainly is the year’s first true Oscar-worthy performance by an actor in a leading role.

It also doesn’t seem an accident that Norton was cast as the notoriously difficult, self-centered Broadway star. Norton’s been known to have his battles with directors on and off the set, so his Mike Shiner may just have a little Norton in him. Everyone else in the cast also turns in superlative performances from the main stars to the smaller roles. Great acting all around.

Birdman is this year’s Gravity.

However, the real star of the movie is Iñárritu from his contributions to the script to his amazing directorial style. I’ve only seen one of Iñárritu’s previous films, Babel, and while I was not a fan of the movie I did appreciate the directorial flair. With Birdman, Iñárritu pulls off an amazing feat by shooting the film as one continuous take. Of course it’s not really one take, but with clever edits and digital trickery (like shooting directly into mirrors), Iñárritu has made Birdman this year’s Gravity.

If the film falters anywhere, it’s in the final moments that may not wrap things up in a satisfactory way for some viewers. Other than that, Birdman is just brilliant from the acting and writing to production design, lighting and directing. It really is the whole package and is the first movie of the year that gets us thinking of awards consideration. Don’t miss it!

Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight

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