First and foremost, “Birdman” is a satire. The movie swings a razor-sharp sword that leaves virtually no segment of the entertainment industry uncut. I just wanted to get that out of the way, so it doesn’t get lost in all the other crazy-awesomeness this movie brings to the table.
What elevates this movie into the realm of greatness is while it is skewering all of the egos and insecurities from Hollywood to Broadway, it presents itself in such a way as to showcase all that is admirable, compelling, and wondrous about the very subject it is ripping to shreds. This is like pulling off the Triple Lindy of movie-making.
The movie, which is fully titled “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” (I’m such a sucker for anything with an “or” title; I blame Rocky and Bullwinkle), is the brainchild of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who directed the movie and co-wrote the screenplay.
Inarritu is best known for bleak, weighty films like “21 Grams,” “Babel” and “Biutiful,” so while it’s not surprising to see him deliver something this complex and ambitious, it is a little jaw-dropping to see him make a movie this buoyant, lively and funny.
I really can’t go any further without talking about the movie’s star, Michael Keaton, who quite possibly delivers the performance of his career in a role where at first glance he appears to be playing himself. Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a middle-aged actor trying to emerge from decades of irrelevance after helming an insanely popular superhero franchise. You can see the similarities.
Riggan was Birdman, but now he is desperately trying to reignite his career on Broadway by writing, directing, and starring in a play adapted from a Raymond Carver short story.
But once you get past the meta-facade, Keaton dives deep to play a man burdened with regrets after falling victim to nearly every single one of the trappings of fame.
Riggan is barely keeping it all together with (some) help from his high-strung attorney and co-financer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis). Of course, it only complicates matters Riggan is dating one of his co-stars, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), while his other two co-stars — gifted prima donna Mike (Edward Norton) and highly self-conscious Lesley (Naomi Watts) — are involved in their own toxic relationship.
To top it all off, Riggan has employed his volatile, recovering-addict daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), to be his personal assistant. You can already tell when you’ve set up the chessboard with this many screwed-up characters played by such talented actors you are going to be in for a treat.
There’s also the added wrinkle of Riggan’s sanity as he hears the voice of Birdman in his head and appears to be capable of fantastic feats which may, or may not, be as real as they are presented.
But then this movie is just getting warmed up as it doubles down and achieves the amazing technical feat of appearing to be filmed in one continuous shot (there are a few “cheats,” where the camera is taken off the actors for a moment or two, but for the most part, it spools out like a real-time play).
“Birdman” also looks fantastic as it was shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who, for my money, is the best director of photography working today.
There is a lot going on with this movie, but never once does it feel overbearing or pretentious — an impressive achievement in itself when you think about it. “Birdman” is quite simply one of the best movies of the year and certain to be touted when year-end awards start rolling in.
Keaton, Inarritu, and Lubezki should be locks when it comes to Oscar nominations (along with the discordant, jazz-drum score by Antonio Sanchez). Stone and Norton might also snag themselves some Best Supporting noms.
“Birdman” is a film-lover’s dream, as it gives you everything you love about movies and then mocks the rest. And if we’re being honest, actors, directors, producers, and critics deserved to be mocked a whole lot more than they are.
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” is rated R for language throughout, some sexual content, and brief violence.