Actor Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) once played iconic superhero Birdman, helping to usher in the age of comic book movie franchises that (to some) are the plague of modern multiplexes. Now, Riggan is washed up and putting all of his money into a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. Demonstrating some strangely powerful telekinetic abilities, but struggling with voices in his head and a personal life in tatters, Riggan has days of previews to go before the opening night of his big Broadway comeback. With a new cast member in place, the arrogant and annoying Mike (Edward Norton), and a daughter fresh out of rehab (Emma Stone), Riggan faces challenges to his sanity both on and off the stage.
Birdman is as bonkers as its deluded, self-destructive main character. Don’t go in expecting a straightforward story of a struggling actor with ego issues trying to stage a comeback. Birdman is far more than that. It’s about actors and their issues, about critics and their power, and it’s about families and their complications. This is from the director who gave us 21 Grams and Biutiful so it deals with deep depression, but this time with plenty of harsh laughs to boot. The references to superhero movies come thick and fast at the start; Robert Downey Jr and Jeremy Renner are namechecked, while Keaton, Norton and Stone have all had their turns at superhero franchises in the past. Birdman is as ‘meta’ as films come, from the casting to the script to the fact that the music (which seems non-diegetic) is often being played by a randomly appearing drummer.
The character of Birdman is a constant shadow over Riggan, but he is also undoubtedly the reason for him being in the position he is. Being an adored superhero has had a lasting effect on Riggan, expanding his ego so much that he might be destined for the biggest fall of his career by trying to do something different and daring. Keaton is really put through the wringer by the script that tears apart these actors and their delusions of grandeur, but also explores their deep seated insecurities and desperation to be loved.
Birdman isn’t all about its whip smart dialogue though and Inarritu directs with a visceral mixture of simplicity and complexity. Long takes complement the fluid dialogue, while the drumming score and use of real locations keep things grounded, even as Riggan really starts to lose his mind. Unlike the superhero movies it rails against, Birdman is smart and requires way more than one sitting to fully appreciate its complexity. If only it could beat The Avengers at the box office in 2015.
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