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Review

‘Birdman’ mesmerizes audience with all-star cast

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October 31, 2014

Michael Keaton, who most remember playing the title character “Batman” 25 years ago in Tim Burton’s classic 1989 superhero film, is finally back in a lead role and has never been better than he is in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).”

“Birdman” was written and directed by Mexican film auteur Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who is one-of-a-kind, just like his films. Inarritu’s films are dark, tragic and realistic, and are best known for being nonlinear.

Movie poster for Birdman.
“Birdman” was directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

The very best examples of his work are “21 Grams” and “Babel,” the latter earning him 2007 Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director.

The plot is somewhat complicated, yet simple in the fact that the entire film takes place in or around a theater in Times Square, New York City. “Birdman” is a film about a Broadway play formulated by a washed-up actor. Throughout the film the cast and crew go through whirlwind of emotions with the climax focusing on the play’s “opening night.”

Riggan (Keaton) is a former film star who three times played a superhero called “Birdman.” The trilogy, similar to today’s “Iron Man” franchise, made Riggan a short-lived star in 80s and 90s, but his film career has slowly dissolved into nothing. Riggan is long forgotten by the American viewing public.

So, Riggan decides to write, direct and act in an adaptation of novelist Raymond Carver’s collection of short stories “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Riggan tells all his colleagues that a conversation he shared with Carver many years ago inspired him to become an actor.

Riggan has hired Lesley (Naomi Watts), Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and Mike (Edward Norton) to star opposite of him in the Broadway play. Mike is cocky and honest, and considered one of the best play actors in the business. But Mike is also stark mad.

For instance, Mike goes ape when Riggan doesn’t supply real alcohol in a scene of heavy drinking; Mike attempts to have actual sex with Lesley in a scene where they share a bed together as lovers; Mike constantly tries to bed Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone); and Mike thinks he is God’s gift to the planet.

Meanwhile, Riggan is battling his own personal demons. There is a lot of pressure on him as he is putting all his life savings into the production. His marriage with his wife (Amy Ryan) has crumbled. His relationship with his daughter is toxic.

Oh and Riggan also talks to a voice in his head. The voice, which perplexingly allows him to fly in the air and move things with his mind, is the Birdman inside. The audience is led to believe Riggan has superpowers for quite some time.

In the end, the film is about family. Riggan has wasted his life away making B-movies and drinking alcohol, squandering family time with his wife and daughter. But the film is also about mental health. Is Riggan insane or can he actually move things with mind and fly like a bird? Also, will the play be a success or is it destined to miserably fail?

“Birdman” could be categorized as a superhero film because Riggan has superhuman attributes at certain points in the film, but more importantly, the film should be classified as a psychological drama. Some have called the film a “black comedy,” but the drama outweighs the small amount of humor sprinkled throughout the plot.

The performances also outweigh the film itself. Keaton, Norton (“Fight Club”), Stone (“Easy A”) and Watts (“The Ring”) are magnificent. Heck, even Zach Galifianakis, who plays Riggan’s best friend Jake, is quite good dramatically. 2014 has not been a great year for films, but “Birdman” does feature the best acting performances of the year thus far.

Elsewhere, the cinematography by the Oscar-winning Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity”) is equal parts surreal and naturalistic. Extreme close-ups emphasize facial expressions, and long, extended takes showcase the beauty of the stage and city.

“Birdman,” at the moment, can only be viewed at Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but it is well worth the trip to one of the best neighborhoods in the Twin Cities.

Jack Tuthill is an alumnus of UW-River Falls. He was editor of the <em>Student Voice</em> during the 2014-2015 academic year.