The trailer for Birdman would have you believe that it’s a weird little indy about a washed up actor who is slowly losing his grip on reality. And while that is certainly a beat within the film, it unfairly discounts all of the things that make Birdman a stellar dark comedy and one of the most unique moviegoing experiences I’ve had in years. It is simultaneously a compelling character study of ego in the fight for self-importance as well as a hilarious meta-commentary on the devolution of art in entertainment. If it weren’t so well shot, acted, and directed, I wouldn’t believe it’s an Iñárritu film.
Birdman alludes to the titular 1992 superhero franchise that Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) once starred in. It was the vapid cash cow that laid the groundwork for today’s tentpole cinema, revolving around a character that has overshadowed the remainder of Riggan’s career and still haunts him in the form of a bellowing inner monologue. In an effort to be more than “an answer to a f*cking Trivial Pursuit question”, Riggan adapts a Raymond Carver story into a Broadway play that he will also direct and star in alongside his mistress (Andrea Riseborough), a first-time broadway actress (Naomi Watts), and her method actor boyfriend (Edward Norton). With Riggan’s best friend (Zach Galifianakis) producing the show and his fresh-out-of-rehab daughter (Emma Stone) as his assistant, this may finally be the vehicle Thompson needs to reignite his celebrity and repair his real life relationships. But in the days approaching opening night, nothing goes as planned, and Riggan discovers that the fame he hopes to recapture may not be silver bullet to fix his life that he thought it was.
Birdman is an extreme departure for writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu. In films like 21 Grams and Babel, Iñárritu postulates that all of humanity is interconnected by violence. He is praised and chastised for beautifully shot and immensely depressing movies, which is why Birdman is such a breath of fresh air. The tone is deliciously dark and funny without sacrificing consequence. It’s also very intimate, taking place almost entirely inside a theater and centering around a select few characters. Iñárritu employs clever editing to make the handheld camera work look and feel like one continuous take. The soundtrack too, is minimalistic, consisting simply of jazz drumming to accentuate the staccato dialogue volleying between characters. It’s this brilliant marriage of cinematography and score that makes Birdman unlike anything I’ve ever seen, setting a tone that allows its cast to both satirize and romanticize the subject matter.
Speaking of the ensemble, the performances in Birdman are nothing short of outstanding, anchored by Michael Keaton as a character whose career arc echoes his own. Each actor completely owns their screen time, almost one-upping each other with each exchange of dialogue. And when you think about the fact that these performers have starred in the very franchises they are excitedly skewering, it is all the more enjoyable to watch.
While there are a few loose ends that are left untied, as well as an unnecessary final scene that limped to the credits as opposed to the perfect ending which occurs 5 minutes earlier, Birdman is a revelatory joy that deserves every ounce of hyperbolic praise I and other critics have heaped upon it. It is a rare, must-see film.