Rare are movies coming out of Hollywood which combine tremendous entertaining qualities, great acting and technical magic. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film, dealing with a popular former film star‘s big comeback as a Broadway producer and actor, hits its target square in the eye. It already took home Golden Globes for its screenplay and lead actor (category Comedy or Musical), won Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture at the SAG Awards and is now up for 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The Mexican director, previously nominated for Babel in 2006, can pride himself for having helmed what is by far the most innovative project featured in this year’s list of Best Picture contenders. At least three good reasons can be brought up for the Fox Searchlight release to win 2014’s highest honor.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera work is mindboggling. The whole project is filmed as a continuous shot. His camera takes us through the corridors of a Broadway theater, its nooks and crannies, backstage and on stage, making us full participants in the stressful experience of producing a play. It follows one character after another, up close and personal, recording their conflicts, rivalries and most intimate moments, unraveling their fears, weaknesses and the superficial nature of the theater world altogether. It comes to Iñárritu’s credit to have choreographed his film so astutely that we never see a single cut through the two-hour running time.
The writing is perfect. There isn’t one false note or a dull moment. Each character is very precisely defined and has a lot at stake. Michael Keaton’s Riggan finds himself guilt-ridden for having given up his success as a superhero star while dealing with a difficult actor and rebellious daughter whom respect he is struggling to regain. Each new scene is unpredictable and features new conflicts, keeping our interest up high, a true challenge considering the whole film mostly takes place in the confined environment of a Broadway theater. The experience could have been claustrophobic and boring within someone else’s hands, but Iñárritu makes it fascinating, especially through the stranded relationship between Keaton, the director of the play, and Edward Norton, his ego-driven pompous costar, which provides most of the best and funniest scenes.
The acting is first class. Michael Keaton couldn’t dream of a better comeback. ‘Birdman’ constitutes a major change of pace for the actor better known for his 80s comedies, Night Shift (Warner Bros., 1982), Beettlejuice (Warner Bros., 1988), The Dream Team (Universal, 1989), and for his stint as Batman (Warner Bros., 1989, 1992). He literally inhabits his character and, through his numerous close-ups, we can read the struggles of a man trying to cope with regret and win his fame back. Edward Norton is obviously enjoying himself, as we are, playing an arrogant, eccentric and unpredictable New York actor, a part rich in layers which provides him with many opportunities to show his chops. He illuminates the screen with his self-assurance. Emma Stone is equally at ease in the role of Riggan’s daughter.
If the Academy doesn’t bestow its highest honor to ‘Birdman’, it will certainly be one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history.