“Unorthodox as it is, Birdman is likely to appeal to formula-fed audiences despite its many peculiarities…”

Birdman (2015)
by Matt Allen @MattAllenSaid

Certificate: 15
Cast: Michael Keaton, Ed Norton, Emma Stone, Zack Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan
Director(s): Alejandro González Iñárritu
Screenwriter(s): Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Running Time: 119 mins

Round three of our Oscar season reviews is here and, with the contenders announced earlier this week, what better film to plough on with than the nine-time Academy Award-nominated Birdman?!

PLOT
In a bid to regain cultural relevance, the former star of a trashy superhero flick, Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is determined to prove his artistic legitimacy by writing/directing/starring in a Broadway play; a challenge that puts excessive strain on his already fractured psyche.

MATT’S MIND
As you might have guessed from the casting of Michael Keaton as a character in the twilight of his career and still most recognised for his role as an iconic superhero, Birdman is more than just a little meta. Looking at Riggan, it’s hard not to see – but for the grace of God – the former Caped Crusader. Despite the obvious real-life parallels, this is not a comedy simply hinged on a semi-autobiographical performance; Iñárritu and co. go out of their way to satirise the arts world itself and with it, its peculiar, often pompous inhabitants.

More than just a sardonic jab at artistes and their inflated sense of grandeur, the film tackles the existential crises of Riggan as he desperately fights to stay relevant in a world that would sooner reduce him to an obscure Trivial Pursuit answer. As his magnum opus collapses around him, he darts between narcissistic euphoria and crippling self-contempt. Perhaps most satisfying to see is Keaton back at his twitchy, wide-eyed and grimacing best giving a concrete performance with cracks in all the right places. Revelling in his on screen alter-ego’s spectacular unravelling, Keaton launches himself into the character just as Riggan gives himself to the stage.

Supporting him is a varied cast on tremendous form. Emma Stone exceeds an already high expectation as the cynical daughter just out of rehab, but Ed Norton almost (almost) steals the show in another spot-on self-referential parody as the egotistical method-man Mike Shiner. Prone to erupt mid-performance in a fit of lamentation as to the fakery of the set and the evident sobriety of his co-star (screaming “of course I’m drunk, I’m supposed to be drunk! Why aren’t you?!”) Norton ricochets off Keaton as the pair exchange dialogue like physical blows.

Emmanuel Lubezki’s (Gravity) camera locks onto characters as they march from room to room – from one disaster to the next – in what is seamlessly edited to appear as one glorious take. This daring and decidedly theatrical technique carries the film away like a white water rapid with exhilarating momentum. There are no brakes on this ride. All the while the exclusively percussive jazz soundtrack punctuates the mounting manic breakdown that threatens to burrow out of Riggan.

Unorthodox as it is, Birdman is likely to appeal to formula-fed audiences despite its many peculiarities. The inherent pretension of a high-concept analysis of the artistic process is neutralised by the general conceit that this is a film ready to laugh at itself. Failing that, the infinitely charismatic performances will carry any cynics along for the ride.

RATING
Quite literally the full package; thought-provoking and sincerely touching without sacrificing the laughs. Technically astounding, pulled together by a unique script and executed by a flawless cast.

5 STARS