#NYFF52, Birdman: Keaton’s Manic Meta-Rebirth Post-Batman

October 16, 2014 | Rhett Jones

ANIMAL has been bringing you continuing coverage from The New York Film Festival, which ran Sep 26 – Oct 12 at Film Society of Lincoln Center. Birdman will be released tomorrow, October 17th in New York. This concludes our coverage. Check out the others here

Birdman, the new film by Alejandro Gonzalez Inárritu (21 grams, Babel), is a film that gets to have its cake and eat it too, in every way. It’s funny and sad, innovative and classical, cinematic and theatrical, while being a human-level drama with some crazy special effects.

Michael Keaton gets to dive back into the comedic acting that made him a star before Batman made him an icon. Turning in a performance that could end up being the one he’s known for, Keaton plays a washed-up actor who was once famous for playing a superhero. After doing three Birdman movies (like Batman, but he’s… a bird!), his character’s career took a nosedive. Now he wants to make a comeback by directing and starring in a Broadway play, which he adapted from an old Raymond Carver book.

Keaton is probably, to some degree, going crazy because his old Birdman character talks to him and tells him what a loser he is. That’s just one magical-realist touch in a film that’s full of them. He can also control things with his mind, floats in the air when he meditates and has Apocalyptic visions. All of these moments are treated as matter-of-fact and mostly serve as just one of many distractions he encounters trying to mount the play that will make people finally respect him as an actor — a continuous series of struggles which comprises the film.

The primary distractions come from the wacko cast of characters that include his fellow actors, his lawyer (Zach Galifianakis), his fresh-out-of-rehab daughter (Emma Stone) and a villainous theater critic that wants to destroy him. The stand out is Edward Norton as a brilliant theater actor who passes the time sabotaging everything through his “method,” harassing women and getting shitfaced. Norton spends half the movie running around in tighty-whiteys, complaining about erectile dysfunction and getting punched in the face. He’s hilarious.

Oh yeah, the movie is shot in a way that makes it seem like one long two-hour-take. That’s the big stylistic coup here. There’s a play being rehearsed and it feels like we’re watching a filmed play through a flying camera that can go through walls and swoop to any angle needed. There’s only a few films that have tried this, but Birdman makes it such a thematic part of the film’s DNA that its final impression is bigger than any of those attempts. In the beginning, you think “that’s nifty,” then “this feels like the most spectacular play ever,” then “holy shit this movie just became a special-effects-heavy, massive explosion-style, superhero film that’s poignant and hilarious.” It’s a rush.

Pretty much everything could have gone wrong with this work. A play within a film, stunt casting, gimmicky camera tricks, self-aware meta-touches and a director who has never done anything close to a comedy — sounds like a recipe for disaster. Instead, it’s Inárritu’s best film by far and everything feels epic, congealing into a sad little character study that makes you laugh your ass off the entire time.

CHEAT SHEET: If you didn’t manage to get tickets to the NYFF and you need to talk about it in conversation, here’s what to say:

– “Anything is funny when an actor is wearing tighty-whiteys.”
– “It manages to pull, like, FOUR false endings and stick the landing.”