In 1989, Tim Burton's Batman became one of the iconic films of the decade, heavily due to the performance from lead actor Michael Keaton. Although Keaton is very much a prestigious actor with various performances, there is no doubt that the caped crusader stands out as perhaps his most well-known and mainstream role to date. This fact is what weighed heavily on many people's minds, including my own, when anticipating Alejandro González Iñárritu's latest film, Birdman, a film with a concept that seemed to beg for an ironic sense of humor prevalent in independent comedies and a self-parody from Keaton, who plays a washed-up actor seeking legitimacy 20 years after playing the film's title character in a blockbuster film series from the late 80s and early 90s. However, the film the world saw dodged this predictable-if-not-entertaining premise for something wholly unique and fascinating to watch.
Keaton's performance here is legitimately astounding to see; he constantly scowls in a seedy, annoyed grimace in a performance reminiscent of Jack Nicholson's better performances, an angry, self-obsessed monster. He shows grace in handling the subtle wrath necessary for this kind of character, cautiously avoiding the over or underacting that would have rendered a movie like this awkward and unwatchable. While watching the mental breakdowns Keaton's character has and the public reactions to his presence, you can't help but believe that Michael Keaton hasn't been in a single film since Batman Returns.
Birdman's lead actor isn't the only one who shines in front of the camera in this film, however. Emma Stone (Zombieland, The Amazing Spider-Man) is absolute gold as Keaton's delinquent daughter, playing opposite Edward Norton (American History X, Fight Club) in what is possibly a romance subplot. Norton's performance here is one of the absolute best things in this movie, portraying what was easy to expect from Keaton--a piece of self-parody that is thoroughly entertaining to watch despite being very one-note and uniform throughout. He portrays a popular, critically acclaimed, award-winning actor who has gained a notoriety for being a massive perfectionist who is extremely difficult to work with--subtle. The film's supporting cast as a whole is filled with absolutely superb performances from everyone involved, including Naomi Watts (King Kong, The Impossible), Andrea Riseborough (Brighton Rock, Oblivion), Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone, Win Win) and a surprising amount of success from popular comedy actor Zach Galifianakis of The Hangover fame, whose only previous approach to serious acclaim was in Jason Reitman's Up in the Air back in 2009.
The cinematography on display is equally spectacular, tying the film together with a sequence of flowing long shots edit to create the illusion that most of the film was a single long shot, making the story move consistently through the movie, with the exception of brief beginning and end sequences that do not hide their cuts. It is a rather clever way for the film to avoid pacing issues that any director less talented than Iñárritu would find to plague an art-house film like this, even if it does disappointingly little to capitalize off the concept that it presents. However, the visuals do not carry the aesthetic and momentum of Birdman entirely on their own; they are helped to great success by a driving jazz soundtrack full of explosive percussion and bass-lines that does everything in its power to be what a soundtrack needs to be. It gives the more uneventful sequences the build necessary for the film's climax.
The unfortunate thing that stops Birdman from being the greatness it could have been, however, lies in its mostly incredible script. Where it succeeds regularly in its use of symbolism, clever, dark sense of humor, its intricate characterization, and its pacing, it fails spectacularly in its resolution. The primary plot concerning Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson is entirely well-written, but none of the other conflicts get any real attention. I referred to the relationship between Emma Stone and Edward Norton in this film as being "possibly a romance subplot," and that's because I legitimately don't know how I'm supposed to take the interactions that these two had together. There was so much focus on these two in the film that I know they were meant to mean something to each other, yet the film did nothing with their relationship. Is it romance, or is it merely Norton longing for Stone's youth ("I'd take your eyeballs out of your head and put them in my own so I could see the world how I did at your age," he remarks in one scene)? Does Norton's character harbor legitimate lust for Stone, and, if he does, is there any kind of emotional attachment? The film gives me nothing to base an answer on, but the tragic thing is that this isn't the only subplot that fails this miserably. The story has Stone's drug addiction, a lesbian romance, the relationship between Keaton and his ex-wife, and the reaction of a theater critic to the play, none of which get any kind of proper closure, and some really only get mentioned once and then disappear altogether. As much as I appreciate subtle writing that doesn't feel the need to spell everything out for me, there was no indication that these aspects were up for interpretation. They just didn't explain them well, at all.
The writing is, however, some of the best of the year if you ignore that particular flaw. The characters are legitimately memorable, and there's just enough abstract symbolism to make this a hit with the art-house crowd without having enough to be overly difficult for everyone else to enjoy, a very rare spectacle to behold. When I see this movie, I get the sense that it was made to be a good movie, not just a serious film for the sake of being a serious film released in the heights of award season. The unique script and sense of humor make for one of the best films of the year and a technical masterpiece that will certainly be in the running for many Oscars this February.