It’s likely that you’ve heard of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Birdman” as a drama with stellar acting and widespread critical acclaim, but it’s unlikely that you’ve realized what the heck this admittedly strange film is about: a heartwarming, tumultuous and entertaining journey of self-discovery. Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is an actor who once played a character called Birdman in a series of famous superhero movies. He is prominent for playing this role, but being the guy in the bird costume is not what he wants to be remembered for. In an attempt to revive his fading career, middle-aged Riggan develops a Broadway play that adapts a Raymond Carver novel to stage. With this play, he hopes to finally be recognized among true artists and leave behind the ghosts of his past.
It is an understatement to say that Riggan’s play is having a hard time getting its feet off the ground. In order to help it become the success he envisions, Riggan replaces one of his lead actors with the eccentric Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), an actor whom theater critics love and is usually at least half naked. Riggan’s problems are compounded as he deals with his highly aggressive daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), a recovering drug addict fresh from rehab who also acts as her dad’s assistant.
Riggan’s utter desperation to turn his play into a bona fide work of art bleeds through the barrier of the screen and creeps into your seat. Keaton does a phenomenal job of navigating audience members through the thoughts of Riggan’s deeply dysfunctional mind. In an especially memorable set of scenes, Riggan is visited by the hallucination of Birdman, his former self who mocks Riggan’s current path and reminds him of his lost glory. (It is interesting to note that much like his character, Keaton has starred in two Batman movies.) These journeys through Riggan’s mind are often accompanied by the idiosyncratic rhythms of percussive instruments, resulting in a jarring, surreal effect.
The characters in this film are seriously messed up, so naturally they deliver a ton of great lines. I’ve never listened to so much profundity by insane people using obscene language. Edward Norton doles out some pretty thought-provoking stuff as Mike, and whenever Sam speaks something hilariously cynical is bound to come out. The humor keeps the film running at a pleasant, digestible pace.
Iñárritu expertly takes the audience through the complexities of each and every one of the characters and lets the actors in this film shine. Every performance is raw, passionate and believable. Every detail on set is meticulously accounted for and perfectly blends in against the urban backdrop of New York City.
The camera work in this film has been highly recognized for following Riggan’s movements in a way that it seems like everything was shot in one take. It must have taken a ridiculous amount of work and planning to ensure that each scene blends into the next, giving a unique and somewhat dizzying effect to the film.
“Birdman” has been nominated for nine Academy Awards — Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing. Keaton and Norton are favorites for their respective categories, and the film is a serious contender for Best Screenplay. For Best Director, most critics’ decisions are split between Iñárritu and Richard Linklater, the director of “Boyhood.”
Some might say that “Birdman” isn’t for everyone, but I wholeheartedly disagree. Cinephiles will surely appreciate this film’s technical achievements, while more everyday moviegoers will laugh at the dialogue, smile at the characters’ successes and perhaps even tear up at times when things go south. If you care at all about family, the differences between perception and truth or the importance of dignity then there is a high probability you will find some sort of meaning in this groundbreaking film.
1 hour, 59 minutes
Rated: R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence
Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton