“Birdman” Casting Review

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

I don’t use this term very often, but Birdman is a tour de force of a film. It instantly captures your attention with its percussion soundtrack, enveloping cinematography, and, of course, award-worthy performances by its all-star cast. Birdman is a weird and manic indie film, and truly embraces that fact. The film revolves around “Riggan”, a washed-up Hollywood actor, and his attempts at doing something “meaningful” with his acting career–specifically, writing/directing/producing his own Broadway play. Naturally, almost everything that could go wrong, does, and it’s up to Riggan to keep everything together, both the play itself and his sanity (both of which are shaky at best).

Riggan is played by Michael Keaton, and I can confidently say that his performance here will probably garner him several award nominations (at the least). Keaton’s Riggan is CRAZY and insanely (no pun intended) complex and layered. On one hand, Riggan is seemingly put together; a serious actor/director dedicated to his craft and to the success of the show. On the other, though, he’s almost too passionate about his craft and success, and will go to almost any length to accomplish his goals. Whether it’s refinancing his home to pay for the production, or staging an accident to get rid of a less-than-stellar actor in the show, Riggan wil do it. On the flipside, he’s also a father, and is trying to do right by his troubled daughter who happens to be fresh out of rehab, and assisting him on the production. Did I mention that Riggan also has a split personality/voice in his head that talks to him, and is physically embodied by a man in a birdman costume? Try and wrap your head around that.

One of the many strengths of Birdman is that it readily blends reality and fiction, in no small part to Keaton’s total embracement of the role. He has no shame in mocking himself and his career, and readily benefits from the similarities between his own life and his character’s. Although to be fair to Keaton, his career is nowhere near Riggan’s. Riggan’s Hollywood claim to fame are his starring roles in the blockbuster Birdman superhero film franchise, which culminated in three movies. The film hints that Riggan hasn’t really done much else since the films, and that is really the only thing he is known for, hence his desire to reboot his career with the play. Keaton was a white-hot household name circa the 1980s, which ultimately led to him landing the iconic role of the superhero Batman in the films Batman and the sequel Batman Returns. His participation and success in those movies single-handedly helped to usher the renowned caped crusader onto the big screen, and solidifying the superhero’s name as a Hollywood franchise. Superhero films, especially Batman movies, can all attribute at least some of their success to the foundation that Keaton helped to build. After his turn as the “Dark Knight”, Keaton has only continued to work in both independent and studio features, and still has an active and enviable career.

Getting back to Birdman–Keaton’s Riggan is greatly enhanced by the similarities that it pulls from the actor’s life, which only further fuels the satirical elements of the film. Seriously, the comparisons drawn between Keaton’s stint as Batman and Riggan’s as Birdman are so convenient they had to have been an intentional choice by the director/producers when casting the project. However, as good as Keaton’s performance is, it wouldn’t have been nearly as good without an outstanding ensemble of actors to play off of. Edward Norton plays “Mike”, a notable theatre actor who is asked to step in as one of the leads in Riggan’s play. Although Riggan is initially excited about the idea of Mike joining his cast, he soon realizes he got way more than he bargained for. This fact is made evident by the first scene in which their characters are introduced to each other, which is probably one of my favorite moments in the entire film. You can tell Keaton and Norton are bringing their A-game here, and practically every scene they are together is a manic display of raw talent as both try and one up the other. Riggan’s daughter “Sam” is played by Emma Stone, who shows a side of herself that most people probably haven’t seen before. The Easy A and Amazing Spider-Man actress plays a fresh-out-of-rehab hellion who secretly just wants to have a relationship with her eccentric father. The role is a nice change of pace for the actress, whose prior works involved playing prototypical “good girls” and damsels in distress. It’s especially great to see Stone’s scenes with Keaton and Norton individually, as her character pulls out different sides and perspectives from the guys, and vice-versa.

Similarly to Stone, Zach Galifianakis plays a slightly different kind of character in Birdman compared to some of his recent work. Galifianakis plays “Jake”, Riggan’s de facto producer/agent/lawyer/friend. Because of his involvement with the play, Jake has the unfortunate duties to put out every fire and deal with every issue during Riggan’s production–and, believe me, there are many. Often times Jake is running around like a chicken with its head cut off, which is fun to watch since Galifianakis usually plays the type of guy that causes trouble for others. Galifianakis’ Jake is manic, neurotic, and slightly flamboyant, which only adds to the melting pot of crazy already going on in this story. Then, to add some much needed character balance to the cast, we have Riggan’s leading ladies in the play–“Lesley” and “Laura”. Lesley is played by Naomi Watts and this film marks her second indie comedy this awards season. Watts can also currently be seen starring opposite Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy in St. Vincent, which is already garnering its share of buzz and attention. Getting back to Birdman, Watts’ Lesley is definitely one of the more even-tempered characters in the film. Lesley is a talented up-and-coming actress eager to make her Broadway debut in Riggan’s play, and she somehow is able to keep her sanity juggling all the personalities around her. In fact, Lesley is the one who suggests that Norton’s Mike should join the cast. We learn that Lesley is actually dating Mike, a volatile relationship that quickly ends as everyone is swept up in the torrent of passions running rampant throughout the stage. Watts seems to readily be enjoying her recent streak of comedic projects, which is also a change of pace for the actress who got awards recognition for her dramatic performance in 2012’s The Impossible.

Laura is played by Andrea Riseborough, a British actress known mostly for her work in the U.K,. but is steadily transitioning over to the U.S. market (her last big project was starring opposite Tom Cruise in 2013’s sci-fi flick Oblivion). Laura is probably the most lackadaisical of the play’s cast, and her sardonic humor is often used as a conduit for the other cast members to channel their various neuroses through. Laura is also sleeping with Riggan (at least initially), before striking up a casual lady-on-lady romance with Lesley. Although their relationship may seem a bit forced at first, it actually makes a whole lot of sense in the world of the film, as the two characters are naturally drawn to each other as the only two cast members who seem to still have their sanity. Finally, there’s one more leading lady worth mentioning–Amy Ryan. The Oscar-nominated actress (Gone Baby Gone) plays “Syliva”, Riggan’s ex-wife, and mother to Stone’s Sam. Sylvia is a bit of a red herring in the film, and when we are first introduced to her, we’re not really sure exactly what to make of her. She initially comes off as the prototypical bossy ex-wife, constantly scolding Riggan and telling him what to do, but as the layers of Riggan’s psyche are slowly peeled away, Sylvia turns out to be so much more . . .

Birdman takes an unconventional approach to its narrative. Nay, it takes most things we’ve come to expect in a movie, flips it around, and hurls it back at you at full force. Everything from the claustrophobic cinematography to the whip smart dialogue will dazzle your senses. The cast, although full of familiar faces, all show twisted and somewhat unfamiliar sides to themselves, which only further adds to the film’s charm and mystique. Birdman is truly a one of a kind film, and should not be overlooked this awards season.

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Kyle