When was the last time a black comedy won the Oscar for ‘Best Picture’? It must have been ages ago, because the academy usually doesn’t favour comedies in this particular category, or just in general. “Birdman” might just change the way we perceive the relevance of the genre, and could possibly re-new the voting members’ faith in the power and weight that comedy brings to the table. That’s how great it is. So much, in fact, that I believe it will sweep the floor when the golden ceremony commences.
Once a well-known actor, Riggan Thomson now lives an empty life, washed up and out of touch with reality. Desperate to revive his career and regain respect and love from the audience, he developes a stage-play with himself in the starring role. But the closer he gets to opening night, the more his relationship with his family, friends and co-workers falls apart.
This is the kind of film that will require repeated viewings – not just because it is rivetingly framed and tightly scripted, but more so because it is filled with rich symbolism, philosophical metaphors and raw cinema poetry. It really operates within three dimensions; the things we see, the things we hear, and the things beyond all of that. As pure entertainment, it slides down smoothly, but the real achievement here is the unseen. What goes on behind the curtain of these people. The allusions that creep up on you, as you gradually realise what this is really all about; emptiness. self-deprecation. The feeling of not being relevant or meaningful to anyone.
Themes of culture, fame and identity are woven together seamlessly, largely due to the outstanding ensemble. Michael Keaton should be a sure lock for a ‘Best Actor’ nomination, giving a stilted yet captivatingly powerful performance as a man whose life is constantly on the verge of falling apart, if he doesn’t get himself together. He literally is the centre of the show, and with any less of an effort, the whole ship could easily have sunken before it had even left the harbour. Thankfully, Keaton is on the top of his game, firing on all emotional cylinders without ever running out of steam.
As for the rest of the cast, the quality is through the roof. Emma Stone plays Riggan’s rehabilitated daughter, Sam, who wants nothing more than for her father to succeed, despite his neglect for her as a parent. She brings so much vulnerability and innocence to the film, and like Keaton, I wouldn’t be surprised it she wounded up taking home a statue. Same thing goes for Edward Norton, who spits out dark comedy gold faster than a cannonball, and adds an intense amount of energy to the cocktail. His character, Mike, is fascinating, particularly because he serves as the complete polar-opposite to Riggan’s character, who is mostly restraint and emotionally isolated, whereas Mike is very outspoken and straight-forward about how he feels. He also seems to represent everything that Sam wants her father to be – a daring, strong and fearless man, who controls the stage rather than letting it control him.
Aesthetically speaking, there is no denying the immense power of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s smooth-rolling shooting style. Everything is constructed to look like one single take, with the camera following these people around, quietly observing but never interfering with the events themselves. The effect thereof is a sense that we as an audience are right there in the moment, but without ever risking anything. Nobody ever looks directly at us, essentially making us the fly on the wall. The scientist studying the ant-farm as it is being tested for flaws and imperfections. It creates a form of magical realism that transfixes you from beginning to end, and ultimately leaves it up to you to decide what you take away.