Birdman is a stylishly crafted and darkly comedic portrait of the ego. In the film, Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor in the tail end of his relevancy. Riggan was once the star of the popular Birdman film franchise, but after three installments and major box office revenues, he’s failed to establish himself outside the superhero role. In an attempt to reclaim some glory and satiate his ego, Riggan writes, directs and stars in an adaptation of a Raymond Chandler short story for Broadway, pouring the last of his money into the project.
If the construct of one-time Batman star Michael Keaton as a has-been former superhero mounting an artsy comeback feels self-reflective, it’s because Birdman is full of meta-commentary on actors, critics and the relationship between art and vanity; however, don’t read too deeply into self-referential surface layer, as it’s mostly implemented to draw harder laughs out of punchlines. The infamously difficult to work with Edward Norton steals several scenes as the contentious actor Mike Shiner, but like Keaton’s Riggan, the character only thinly resembles the man playing him. Instead, the characters are devices through which director and co-writer Alejandro G. Iñárritu applies Birdman’s pointed satirical observations. The characterizations are heightened to nearly allegorical levels that let Iñárritu’s characters serve as symbols for the issues they encounter.
Riggan Thomson is a man that confuses admiration with love. As he contends with his volatile daughter (Emma Stone) who is freshly out of rehab, and things begin falling apart behind the scenes of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” Riggan keeps his focus on presenting himself in a way that will illicit the most acclaim. When an actor who’s not up to snuff is knocked out by a stage light that falls from the rafters (for which Riggan is convinced he’s responsible), his injury gives Riggan the opportunity to replace him with a Broadway actor who can help sell more tickets. This piece of malignant narcissism helps illustrate the mindset of the protagonist, his lack of sensitivity to those around him and a predominate concern for himself.
Michael Keaton’s performance of Riggan is remarkable, careening from comedic set piece to dramatic climax at several points in the film. He humanizes the character’s desperate need to feel important and allows the self-obsessed actor to feel empathetic.
Many of the roles in Birdman provide the actors with more intriguing parts than they normally receive. The aforementioned Edward Norton is a definite contender for Best Supporting Actor awards with his strongest role in over a decade. Norton’s Mike Shiner wears his discontentment on his sleeves, with a commitment to on-stage authenticity so strong that it’s the only place he can get sexual physically.
Emma Stone is also given more to do in Birdman (despite a supporting part) than she’s asked of in either Amazing Spider-Man film. There’s a raw honesty to her portrayal of Riggan’s daughter/assistant Sam that serves to create a distinct contrast between her and her image conscious father.
Amy Ryan and Naomi Watts continue to deliver consistently compelling dramatic performances, but their naturalistic tendencies paired to Birdman’s deceptively clever dialog gives both actresses funny moments, as well. One of the film’s most hysterical performances comes from Zach Galifianakis. Stripped from the moronic character traits he’s often saddled with in mainstream movies, Galifianakis uses his character’s neurosis as the vehicle for his impeccable comedic timing.
The most striking element of Birdman is the visual style implemented by Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Almost the entire movie is shot in long takes that blend seamlessly from scene to scene, giving the effect that the film is one continuous shot. The stars of Birdman pop in and out of frame, ducking around the swirling camera as scenes move from one part of the theater to another, or from one day into the next. The camera whipping from one focus to another accentuates the anxious energy of Birdman, along with Antonio Sanchez’s frenzied jazz drum score that crashes and clangs in the background, creating a sense of chaos around Riggan Thomson. While editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione facilitate the organic flow of scenes, it’s the meticulously fashioned camera movements and careful attention paid to the actors’ blocking by Iñárritu and Lubezki that makes the ambitious technique work flawlessly.
Birdman is a fantastical portrayal of an actor in the fleeting moments of his significance. Utilizing magical realism to amplify Riggan Thompson’s battle against his own sense of self-importance, Iñárritu’s film is a beautiful examination of the mindset of an artist that juxtaposes the struggle for creative dignity against more of Riggan’s serious concerns. It’s heartfelt and hilarious, a dreamlike movie that effortlessly moves between its characters and situations to craft a story unlike any filmed before it.
Led by a fantastic Michael Keaton, Birdman is a deeply thoughtful and darkly hilarious meta dissection of egotism that satirizes the entertainment business with a compelling visual style that is all its own.