I hereby confidently predict that Michael Keaton will win Best Actor at the Oscars for his performance in Birdman. In fact, I think it highly likely that the film will win in other major categories as well, including best picture, director and original screenplay.
The reasons for this are myriad, but one of them is that Oscar loves a film about the creative process. There are a surprising amount of excellent films about films, or in this case, films about film actors on stage. Not that Birdman is stagey. On the contrary, director Alejandro G Inarritu’s latest work is rigorously and refreshingly cinematic.
Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) to use its full title, concerns screen actor Riggan Thomas (Keaton), formerly a movie star famous for a superhero franchise entitled Birdman – a superbly knowing reference to Keaton’s own stint on Tim Burton’s Batman movies. Deciding he wants to be taken seriously as an actor and artist, Riggan writes, directs and stars in a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. But as opening night approaches, he is plagued production problems of various kinds – mainly caused by his odiously self-obsessed co-star Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), as well as estranged drug-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone) and the fact that he might have impregnated another member of his cast, Laura (Andrea Riseborough). His stressed-out lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) works hard to keep the various plates spinning, despite the endless curveballs the production throws him, such as potential lawsuits and Shiner’s problems with his wife Lesley (Naomi Watts), who is also a co-star. Meanwhile, Riggan begins to dread the review of an acid-penned theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan in a wonderful bit part). Worse still, he also battles his own narcissism, ego and self-doubt in imagined conversations with his Birdman alter-ego, as fantasy and reality start to clash in deliciously surreal and disturbing fashion.
I could chuck many superlatives at this film: gripping, incisive, challenging, darkly funny… The acting is impeccable (particularly from Keaton) and the screenplay superbly judged, taking savage sideswipes at superhero movie obsessed Hollywood whilst at the same time providing philosophical yet penetrating insights into artistic integrity, marriage, madness, parenthood, leaving one’s mark on the world and the pursuit of true happiness. The main theme is essentially summed up by Riggan’s ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), who at one point gently tells Riggan that he has confused love with admiration.
Inarritu’s direction is visually stunning. With the exception of a brief sequence at the very start and end, the film appears to be shot in a continual take, roving around the various characters within, and sometimes outside, the theatre building. A certain amount of visual trickery is used to achieve this, notably in the fantasy sequences which become increasingly elaborate as the film progresses. In fact, during these scenes I was reminded of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and the fantasies of the main character in that story. In the past, I haven’t been a big fan of Inarritu (I liked Amores Perros, but Babel and 21 Grams left me cold). However, this is undoubtedly his best work to date.
All of which brings me to the usual warnings for those offended by bad language and sexual references, of which there is a fair bit throughout. But none of it seemed out of context or gratuitous. Ultimately, Birdman deserves all the afore-mentioned superlatives, and quite possibly the Oscars it will surely go on to win.