Hey, that Michael Keaton guy is pretty good! And so is Birdman!
During the late eighties and early nineties, people considered Michael Keaton and Tom Hanks to be equal in both talent and potential. I know it seems egregious now, but it’s true. Keaton ended up portraying Batman in 1989 and 1992, but the nineties were clearly more favorable to Hanks. And that was really the end of “Keaton versus Hanks.”
Enter Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) in 2014. Keaton portrays an actor past his prime – an actor known for his role as an iconic superhero during his apex. The actor is trying to put on a Broadway play and the movie is essentially the week (or several weeks) before the first show.
The film is tremendous in many ways and that interesting twist involving Keaton’s personal life and the movie’s plot is just part of it. Naturally, people have been curious as to whether the movie was written with Keaton specifically in mind for the leading role, and the answer is a little bit more complicated than one might think.
Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director, claims Keaton was the only one who could pull off the role. Keaton begs to differ, saying he doesn’t think it was specifically for him. Regardless, the relationship works beautifully.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence this movie fully shows Keaton’s acting prowess – something he’s only been able to do in supporting roles recently, like in The Other Guys and the unnecessary RoboCop remake. In Birdman, he takes center stage – literally – and joins the list of actors that can singlehandedly carry an audience’s attention through an extended monologue. Al Pacino, for example, is a member of that list; all you have to do is watch Scarface‘s classic scene where Pacino drunkenly drawls, “You need people like me.”
And who can forget his tirades on journalistic ethics and integrity in The Insider?
Going back to Keaton, he does a great job of conveying passion and angst – instability too – but he has an equally capable supporting cast working with him. Edward Norton portrays a fictional version of himself; his character is obnoxious, arrogant, and undoubtedly talented. When Keaton and Norton share the screen and often clash with each other, sparks violently bounce around their exchanges.
Zach Galifianakis takes on a serious role for once as Keaton’s lawyer/friend and is competent. Emma Stone is Keaton’s daughter and to be honest, she overdoes her acting here. She is a good actress in most cases, but she isn’t quite there yet. Instead, she resorts to doing the I’m-angry-so-my-eyes-will-ludicrously-bulge, which is too bad.
If there’s one injustice of acting in Birdman, it’s the underutilization of Naomi Watts. She doesn’t get much to work with; her highlight is probably a brief – but passionate – lesbian kiss with one of the play’s actresses (another quirky character in her own right). Why does it seem like Naomi Watts kisses a woman in every movie she’s in? It’s confounding, really.
One of the most hyped features of Birdman is the insane notion that the vast majority of the film is technically a long take; long takes are when the scene doesn’t change via camera cut, but instead continues with one camera adjusting accordingly. Long takes (or tracking shots) can be astonishing in their power and beauty – Children of Men from 2006 features an example of that.
As it happens, the director of photography is Emmanuel Lubezki, who is responsible for Children of Men and its haunting, gritty visuals, as well as movies like Gravity and The Tree of Life. One of the negatives of tracking shots is the ache it can cause for viewers’ eyes. Camera cuts are like miniscule little breaks, giving the viewers a chance to rest on a subconscious level. If a tracking shot isn’t done right, it’s like looking at life through a lens followed by another lens – ouch. Fortunately, Lubezki adjusts admirably to the heavy demands of Birdman, and I suspect his work will not only get nominated for at least one Oscar, but win too.
One last thing about the cinematography: the lighting and the general mood is reminiscent of Los Angeles, particularly the vintage/retro hues of green and blue one gets from movies like Collateral and Drive. The film takes place in New York City, however, and the atmosphere takes on the role of dirtiness, which is almost synonymous with NYC. It’s an interesting contrast, where one set of criteria can mean different things depending on the context.
The movie’s music is just as clever as the visual effects, seamlessly being integrated within the movie’s plot. The soundtrack is almost completely based around percussion, which makes sense not only in relation to the visuals, but within the context of the scenes themselves. For example – and this may be a mild spoiler – at one point, we see that the music is actually being played by a street musician. It’s those nifty little tricks that make Birdman so refreshing and so great.
In the end, you have to ask one question: do those little tricks serve an actual purpose, or are they just gimmicks? It’s a fair question, but I believe their use was justified. Birdman does a great job of combining two different types of observers: the reliable and the unreliable. When Michael Keaton is on the screen, what we see is not necessarily the truth, especially as the movie progresses and Keaton’s mind continues to go nucking futs.
While the long takes aren’t used exclusively for Keaton’s scenes, they help distort time. The days before the play’s debut blend together and it’s more effective than the conventional method of filming and pacing. So yeah, they aren’t gimmicks.
Across the board, Birdman is solid or spectacular. The acting is anchored by Keaton and Norton and the aesthetics of this movie may go down in history as being particularly influential for future generations of moviemakers and movie viewers.