At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Black Comedy-Drama/Stars: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Naomi Watts, Lindsay Duncan, Merritt Wever, Jeremy Shamos, Bill Camp, Damian Young, Paula Pell, Donna Lynne Champlin, Jackie Hoffman, Susan Blackwell/ Runtime: 119 minutes

I would just like to start this review off by saying that every so often, a slice of cinematic pie comes across my desk that is quite distinct in that it is so wonderfully odd, so novel in its way of doing things, and so unorthodox in its method of execution that I find myself completely blown away by how wonderful it really truly is every single time I watch it be it my first or 51st viewing.  I say this because the movie Birdman from 2014 is one of those films. Indeed Birdman is a slice of cinematic pie that is quite a few things in one film. It’s an intriguing and gorgeously done experiment of a film. It’s a marvel of a technical accomplishment that will most assuredly be combed over and dissected by film students for a long time to come. It’s a black comedy with just the right degree of bite to it. It’s a slice of cinematic pie that shows or helps you remember just how top-notch every single performer in this, with particular regard to Michael Keaton, can be when given the right cinematic sandbox to play in. Yet more than all of that, there is one thing worth knowing about this film: it really is entertaining in all the best ways and then some.

The plot is as follows: Birdman tells the story of a man by the name of Riggan Thomson. A man who at one time was Hollywood royalty due to his starring role in a series of superhero films about a character called Birdman, but who has here lately fallen on hard times and severely out of the limelight. To that end, we see that Riggan is trying desperately to mount a comeback of sorts by penning, helming, and being the lead actor in a Broadway theatrical production of a play by Raymond Carver. Yet as opening night gets closer and closer, we also see that our hero’s dilemma list gets bigger and bigger as well. Indeed not only his estranged teenage daughter giving him grief for this or that, but an actress he’s been seeing is claiming she is expecting and he’s the father, an infamously brutal theater critic is threatening to tear his show apart in her column, his ex-wife has decided to make a comeback in his life, a noted theater veteran he brought on to replace someone else named Mike Shiner keeps going way too method for his liking, and he’s being driven nuts by his own inner voice who keeps pushing him to do something other than what he is doing. Thus with everything on the line, including his sanity, we see as our hero gets set for a show that is quickly turning into something that is easily becoming the make or break point. Not just of our character and his mental state, but of his entire career as well….

Now when looking at this slice of cinematic pie from a technical standpoint, I think the best place to start with is Emmanuel Lubezki. A name that is more than just a mere name; rather that is also a sentence, statement, and cinematic phenomenon all rolled into one. I say this because you can’t sit down and view a slice of cinematic pie shot by this Oscar winning cinematographer and not at any point find yourself riveted and feel as if you are in the movie itself. Indeed just one year after blowing this reviewer completely out of the water with the sci-fi movie Gravity, Lubezki takes us to the world of theater and through his work in Birdman we as movie goers feel like we are present in every single moment and as if the cast in this is interacting with us in addition to each other. In addition, it really does seem like 2014 was a year devoted to the utilization of drums in cinema soundtracks. I say this because talented musician Antonio Sanchez brings to this film a riveting drum score that is spot-on from the very beginning and which you won’t be surprised to see yourself bobbing your head to as the movie goes on. Yet whilst the work done in this by Sanchez elevates the film to new heights, it’s the work done by this film’s editors Douglas Prise and Stephen Mirrione that might just be the proverbial icing on the cake. This is because through their work the entire film plays as if it was all shot in one seemingly non-stop take. Yes I am positive that if you knew what you were looking for you could spot moments where one cut begins and the other ends, but I am also confident that you really couldn’t catch them with the naked eye if you tried.

Ultimately though, I think the key reason besides the cast and the aforementioned technical ingredients why this slice of cinematic pie is so bloody enjoyable if not one of the most purely engaging slices of cinematic pie I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in some time is not just due to the narrative and the other contributions made by the other skilled professionals behind the camera, but also because of the skilled and stylish manner that co-scribe/film helmer Alejandro González Iñárritu utilizes tone to the point that this slice of cinematic pie can be absolutely funny at moments only to have a dramatic bent come to play which then results in things becoming quite emotional. Above anything else though, this film truly is a tribute to the world of cinema and makes for quite the phenomenal accomplishment that is leaps and bounds an improvement of just about nearly every other slice of cinematic pie from the long gone year of 2014. Yes I have no doubt that Iñárritu already had vocal admirers from such slices of cinematic pie as Babel and Biutiful, but I also am willing to bet that this is, even when taking into account The Revenant from 2015, is easily his most approachable movie to this point as well as the slice of cinematic pie that, if you haven’t seen it, turned out to be the one that, at least in my eyes, saw him placed side by side alongside individuals like Marty Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Clint Eastwood among other directorial icons in the distinct and storied legacy of movie magic.

Now the performances in this slice of cinematic pie really are truly next-level work. This of course starts with screen icon, and one of my personal favorite actors, Michael Keaton in the lead role of Riggan. Indeed I am so so thrilled that Keaton is in this because I am of the opinion that, despite some truly iconic work in the past, I also feel that he really had been up to that point in time the unfortunate victim of being criminally underutilized in his career. Sure the comic book savvy audience most likely loves the ground the man walks on due to being perhaps one of a pair of the ideal cinematic Bruce Wayne/Batman combos so far, and the pop culture and hipster crowds most likely adore him for his equally as iconic turn as the titular paranormal menace in Tim Burton’s 1988 hit Halloween classic Beetlejuice. Yet where Keaton has been criminally overlooked is in the movies where he shows his genuine talent at being a dramatic actor with particular regard to his performance as an expectant father who is stricken with cancer in My Life or as a man trying his best to recover from being a long-term alcoholic in Clean and Sober respectively. Yet I can safely say that in this slice of cinematic pie, Keaton is able to merge together both sides of how audiences have seen him and gives us a character that is distinct because although he is the protagonist, he’s also a bit out of his element, self-centered, and vengeful when the situation calls for it. Yet it’s the humanity that is just underneath the surface to say nothing of the natural charisma brought to the character by Keaton himself that makes this character a winner. Indeed no matter what his character is doing from attempting to deal with the voice in his head, engaging in fisticuffs with Edward Norton whilst the latter is in nothing but a speedo, running around Times Square in his underwear, or trying to make amends with his daughter, I feel like this is a home run through and through and truly is the part that Keaton has been waiting I feel his whole career up to that point to get the opportunity to bring to life on the big screen for all the world to see because he is just downright perfect.

I also loved the supporting cast that has been assembled to aid Keaton in bringing this truly unique narrative to life. This starts off with Edward Norton who, much like Keaton’s casting, is also perfectly cast as arrogant and bratty man child iconic theater actor Mike Shiner. Indeed I know that seemingly ever since he came into the land of movie magic he has been labeled as one of Hollywood’s more difficult people to work with (a label he really hasn’t gone out of his way to deny or do much to change incidentally), but it also can’t be denied that Norton is a truly gifted actor when given the right material. Suffice it to say this is most assuredly the right material and Norton does a wonderful job at giving us a character that is, for all intents and purposes, a parody of who he has been labeled virtually all his career and manages to play it in a way that is both brilliant and also wonderfully hilarious at certain points as well. I also really enjoyed the work done in this by Emma Stone who is downright electric as Riggan’s fresh out of rehab daughter Sam. Indeed Stone has consistently been a top-notch talent and in this it’s no different as she provides this film with a ferociousness that I honestly do not think any other female performer her age could have brought to the screen and in the process brings vividly to life a wounded character that slowly but surely finds herself making amends with her dear ol’ dad even whilst butting heads with him on pretty much every little thing. I also liked that although their screen time, especially in comparison to the trinity of performers previously mentioned, is limited Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, and Amy Ryan all did wonderful work in their respective roles with Watts getting the most laughs, but Ryan getting the biggest narrative arc for audiences to immerse themselves. Finally, after seeing this I would just like to hope against hope that Zach Galifianakis continues to be given opportunities to be in movies like this because he is wonderful as Riggan’s lawyer/producer/best friend Jake. Indeed Galifianakis is truly three-dimensional and just manages to give the overall movie a wonderful degree of sympathy that helps the audience be able to get to the heart of just who this guy as well as our main character are as people and the end result is truly magical.

All in all at the end of the day, the 2014 slice of cinematic pie that is Birdman is more than just an extremely creative movie that manages to deliver to the movie goer a highly riveting narrative as well as brilliantly executed technique from a group of gifted professionals behind the camera. Rather, with a wonderfully intriguing and oddball to the hilt group of characters all played perfectly by a top-flight cast, dialogue that is both comedic and thought-provoking in the best way possible, and a handle on reality that is perhaps the very dictionary definition of ambiguous, Birdman is a slice of cinematic pie that will most assuredly make you raise an eyebrow in disbelief, but also provide you with a grin that just won’t quit and a cinematic experience that I promise you will most assuredly not forget. On a scale of 1-5 I give Birdman “2014” a solid 4 out of 5.