Birdman: A Surreal Midlife Crisis

Sometimes we ask ourselves whether anything we’ve done in our lives has had any actual meaning for us or the world, and when we find that we have done nothing meaningful, we make drastic changes so that we may one day be remembered. That is the premise for the movie Birdman. Michael Keaton plays a hollywood actor named Riggan, who was once famous for playing a super hero, but has now decided to write, direct, and act in a broadway show so he can prove to the world he has real talent. The premise might hit a little too close to home for Keaton, who famously played Batman in the early 90s, but has since not been able to reclaim that level of stardom. Though to his credit, he’s done multiple voices for Pixar films, and he’s been great at that.

We also lean early in the film that Riggan has a darker, more brooding voice in his head, the voice of his character Birdman, who is constantly criticizing his decision to do the Broadway show and works on convincing Riggan to return to the silver screen for another Birdman movie. Riggan has constant hallucinations throughout the movie, making himself feel like he possess the powers of Birdman, and these scenes lead to some fantastic imagery throughout the movie. The movie revolves around the various struggles that Riggan must endure to make it to opening night for his play, including dealing with self-obssessed broadway actors, being attenting to his daughter who has recently come out of rehab, and battling with a New York Times critic who has promised to destroy his show, without having seen it, because he’s just a movie star who came to her town without getting her permission. The plot sounds straight forward, and it pretty much is, but it is the execution of the film that I found truly intriguing.

The movie plays like a free-flowing jazz piece, with music to match. Except for the cut to end credits, there is not a single fade to black transition shot. The entire film is in constant motion, we’re not presented with any indications of how much time goes by between scenes, and must rely on contextual clues to understand that time has gone forward. The camera itself does not appear to ever shut off, and the film does not appear to be cut at any time, as we are constantly moving from one scene to another. Without giving out spoilers, one scene exemplifies this perfects as two of the characters are up in the rafters, and you can hear other characters practicing the play on the stage below. The camera then pans from the rafters and down to the stage and suddenly we see the play in full production with a sold out audience, and one of the characters previously in the rafters is now on the stage. Another scene that stands out is when Riggan leaves the stage after rehearsal, walks to his dressing room talking to his lawyer, closes the door to his dressing room sits down and starts speaking. The camera then pans away from Riggan and we see that he is actually speaking to several reporters. These are clearly two different scenes that were perfectly blended together without a transition shot, and the only clue we have that this is a different scene is that new characters have been added to the scene.

The film’s free-flowing jazz vibe is matched by the score of the film. The vast majority of the movie’s score consists of fantastic drumming, and no other instruments. The drums change in speed, volume, and rhythm constantly to provide us feelings of anxiety and anticipation. I only noted two scenes where the drums dropped completely, and a traditional film score took over, and both scenes are instances where Riggan has some type of revelation about him and Birdman, and we get the big hollywood score instead of the jazzy drums we’ve had for the rest of the film. It’s a brilliant decision as the music helps us stay in Riggan’s mindset. The drums keep us in the anxious state he is in while working on his play, while the two scenes with the movie score are his calm moments of clarity where, at least for a time, he no longer feels worried about the numerous problems in his life. This interplay between the no-transition editing, and the score works wonderfully together to give the audience the formless, unstructured feel that the film is trying to present us with. These two facets of the film combined with increasing imagery of Riggan’s hallucinations make for a wonderfully surreal presentation of a man dealing with his mid-life crisis.

I cannot end the review without at least mentioning the acting level in this movie, which was fan-fucking-tastic. Michael Keaton’s performance in this film might be the best of his career. It’s painfully honest as the audience who knows Keaton’s work at all begins to wonder how much of this is actually Keaton talking about himself than just a simple portrayal of a character. Not to be outdone, Edward Norton gives us a similarly honest performance, playing a broadway star with delusions of grandeur. He boasts about himself to everyone while in public. But in those private moments he has with Riggan’s daughter (Emma Stone) he reveals the truth about himself, that feels himself a fraud when in the real world, and it is only on the stage that he feels like he is being honest. It’s an ironic concept that I can’t help but feel is felt by many of the greatest actors. Norton provides an incredibly wide range, from loud and self-confident to intimate and honest, to everything in between. Let’s not forget the performance delivered by Emma Stone. I’ve been a fan of Stone’s work for some time, and she did not disappoint. Though, I believe, there were a few scenes that were overacted, the majority of the film consists of very subtle work on Stone’s part, as she beautifully plays off the other actors in the scene. She never steals the scene, but she always made the scene complete.

It is difficult to summarize the film overall. The closest I can come up with is if Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York had a child, it would be this film. It’s not the best movie I’ve seen this year. It runs a little long in some areas and, without spoiling anything, the last 30 seconds of the last scene of the movie was an incorrect decision because it slightly changes the concepts we were presented with through the rest of the film, but  overall it was incredibly enjoyable. So if you need something odd and quirky to recover from this summer’s mega blockbusters, go see this flick.