Washed up celebrities, surrealism, truth and the theatre converge into an extraordinary film from Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Amores Perros,” “21 Grams”), a master of weaving multiple story lines together tackling dark but powerful themes about human nature and love. “Birdman” does not veer from these themes, but it is a dramatic structural shift for Iñárritu; rather than disparate subplots or vignettes, the film is intended to look like one continuous take.
Michael Keaton aptly stars as a celebrity whose heyday ended in the ‘90s – Riggan Thomson, a.k.a. Birdman. Riggan is about to enter previews with his Broadway debut, an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” which he wrote, directed and stars in, yet he’s haunted by Birdman, a voice in his head that provokes him and tells him he’s above it all. But Riggan has everything tied up in this production: a ton of money, his pride, his self-worth as an artist (not a celebrity) and even his personal life. His daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), is fresh out of rehab and working as his assistant, and he’s dating his co-star (Andrea Riseborough).
It all hits the fan, however, when one of the play’s male leads suffers an accident and in walks Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). A Broadway star, Mike’s views on theatre and acting put him at creative odds with Regan. He also creates more backstage drama because his girlfriend is the play’s fourth star (Naomi Watts) and he also strikes up a connection with Sam. Thus begins a series of tumultuous events as opening night nears, where everything could unravel with one bad review from The New York Times.
Iñárritu gleefully plays with reality, keeping the audience constantly guessing as to what’s real. This isn’t just limited to what’s going on in Riggan’s head and whether or not he has telekinetic powers; the script floats in and out of its own dialogue and the play’s dialogue, blurring the lines between the two, especially because the play, of course, echoes the themes of the film. Iñárritu does a masterful job keeping us from ever quite establishing what’s “real” in the movie, a tactic the serves to heighten our attention to detail while watching everything unfold.
And my, what details indeed. An entire review could be written about the film’s continuous takes, or about the rhythm and timing of all the shots and scenes accentuated brilliantly by a score performed on a single drum set. “Birdman” feels like its own organism, with Iñárritu, composer Antonio Sanchez, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione working in perfect harmony. It’s kind of amazing that their work doesn’t distract from the story’s complexities, let alone bolster them.
The actors are far from pawns in this intricate machine of a film, however. Keaton rises above simply being cast for the obvious ways his career mirrors Riggan’s and meets the demands of this role in a way with surprising aplomb. Although he’ll go down in the history books as Batman and Beetlejuice, this is the crowning achievement of his acting career. Norton, Watts, Stone and even Zach Galifianakis as his manager/assistant are a pretty extraordinary ensemble of supporting cast members helping him to succeed.
The themes, ideas and commentary about art and celebrity make “Birdman” a total critics’ film and one with an endless pile of conversation-starters. Each relationship between characters, Riggan’s relationship with himself and with Birdman brings its own ideas to the overall film, plus there’s the notion about truth in art, being an artist versus a celebrity, the relevance of social media in our lives as it relates to these things and more. Add in how the technical aspects of the film complicate these themes and “Birdman” is a total intellectual triumph. It’s also darkly comical, dramatic and bizarre, so the entertainment factor doesn’t fall by the wayside.
Audiences will enjoy “Birdman” to the point that they can play along with Iñárritu’s distortion of reality. It’s not the most accessible film, and getting too caught up in what’s real or what’s actually going and not exploring the artistic messaging going on below the surface or emerging from the details will make “Birdman” a frustrating viewing experience. Expand your comfort zone and imagination and “Birdman” takes captivating, creative and majestic flight.
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo
Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts