There’s a real joy that comes from watching a smart film…from listening to crackling dialogue delivered by terrific actors who’re at the top of their game. Birdman, co-written and directed by Alejandro González Iñáritu, is easily one of the smartest films you’ll see.
It’s been described as a showbiz satire, but that label does little justice to the vast scope of the picture. The movie works on many levels: it’s a behind-the-scenes comedy about the workings of a theatre company, a brutal comment on the nature of celebrity in the age of social media, a rich character study of complex individuals, and also a surreal fantasy about a man in search of who he truly is.
It’s a lot to pack into 2 hours, but Iñáritu seamlessly weaves these multiple themes into this surprisingly profound meditation on life and success. Allowing unending comparisons to be drawn with his own career, Michael Keaton, once Batman, stars as Riggan Thomson, an actor who found fame in the nineties playing a superhero named Birdman. Now a washed-up has-been, he’s desperate to make a successful comeback with an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story that he’s directing and starring in on Broadway.
Shot and edited into what looks like one continuous take, the film tracks Riggan in the days leading up to opening night, even as his fellow actors, family, and a formidable critic throw all manner of crises in his path. He must keep a watchful eye on his recovering-addict daughter (Emma Stone), pacify his neurotic lead actress (Naomi Watts), control his volatile co-star (Edward Norton), and keep up the illusion of being calm for his best friend and producer (Zach Galifianakis). All the while he’s also compelled to introspect on his own failures as a partner when he’s alternately visited by his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and his current girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough). And if that wasn’t enough to deal with already, there’s the issue of that nagging voice – and sometimes image – in his head, of his mocking alter ego, Birdman, who’s urging him to ditch the theatre dream and go back to making those sell-out blockbusters.
It’s a delicious script, and Keaton and his co-stars bring the acidic dialogue to life. Stone is particularly good as the bitchy daughter, but it’s Norton who steals every scene he’s in as the method actor who fully believes the hype about his supposed brilliance. Powered by a jittery jazz drum score throughout, the film unfolds with a sort of kinetic energy, as if sharing our protagonist’s racing heart rate. Keaton, who is funny, desperate, brave, and pathetic, all rolled into one, does his career’s best work in this slyly thought-provoking film that completely blew my mind.
I’m going with four-and-a-half out of five for Alejandro González Iñáritu’s Birdman. It’s an entirely different beast from his previous gems Amores Perros and Babel, but it’s a film so smart, it’ll leave you giddy with pleasure.