PLOT: Washed up former superstar Riggan Thomson attempts to stage an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story in a bid for legitimization, but the endeavor threatens to come undone thanks to his own insecurities and a bevy of uncooperative colleagues and relations.
REVIEW: Movies are rarely as thrilling and fun to experience as BIRDMAN, a razor sharp dark comedy that skewers everything in Hollywood - and New York's Broadway - from producers, actors, directors, narcissists, critics, comic books - among other things. But it's not only a film with a bleak wit and perceptive knowledge of the industry; it's a soulful examination of one man's crumbling sense of self. It's profound and half-crazy, wise and bold, and it will go down as one of the great satires in modern times.
Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, usually associated with grim dramas like 21 GRAMS and BABEL, looks at the human condition from a different angle here, presenting us with a flawed, desperate man in need of a reboot on life. Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a once-popular actor known for a string of superhero movies called BIRDMAN, which seem about as cheesy as you'd expect. Yearning to be taken seriously, he passed on BIRDMAN 4 - against the judgement of the voice in the back of his head, which tells him he deserves to remain in the spotlight at any cost - Riggan is mounting an adaptation of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" but having trouble getting it right. One of his actors (Jeremy Shamos) is a hammy fool, while another (Andrea Riseborough) might be pregnant with his child. He deals with his own nagging insecurity as a performer, while also faced with his inadequacy as a father to his recovering drug addict daughter (Emma Stone), who doubles as his bored assistant. The arrival of a pompous actor with "name-recognition" (Edward Norton) who questions his only move only further alienates him from his own sense of worth, and he begins to wonder if the play - or even life - is worth any of the hassle.
There have been plenty of behind-the-scenes Hollywood comedies that adroitly comment on the creative bankruptcy of the business, but none have done it with such flair and inventive wickedness as BIRDMAN. While not quite a fantasy, Inarritu utilizes a visionary toolbox to depict the tale of Riggan's mounting doubt of his own self and the unraveling of his play. Armed with the conceit that the story is being told with only one take (like Hitchcock's ROPE, the cuts are sneakily hidden), the director - with the aid of his brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki - delivers a visual masterpiece, with weird and wonderful sights around every corner, reality-based or not. (Riggan is under the assumption he can move objects with his mind, or float in the air during mediation.) We eventually don't even realize the gimmick is happening consciously, but the way his camera moves around the historic St. James Theater, where most of the film is set, is mesmerizing in both its simplicity and its complexity; the film makes staging 8-9 minute long takes look easy.
But it's not all surface-level beauty; BIRDMAN comes armed with a handful of knives with which to stab at the black heart of the movie and theater industries. The fascination with franchises, the callous way it disposes of its stars, the self-satisfaction; any person with even a modicum of understanding of how Hollywood works will see it accurately portrayed as a brutal, "what have you done for me lately" town, while Broadway gets knocked for its pretentious stars and withering critics. Rarely is satire so unabashedly on-the-nose. This is not to say you have to be in-the-know to enjoy the way BIRDMAN batters its targets; the film's themes of redemption and contrition are applicable to all walks of life.
The cast is what gives the film a heartbeat; a ridiculously good ensemble. Keaton is, naturally, the perfect person to play Riggan. His face lined with years of hard living and unwelcome aging, Keaton brings Riggan's vulnerabilities and desperation to vivid life in a vanity-free performance for the ages. The cocky Michael Keaton we're so familiar with is gone, replaced by a man riddled with guilt and regret, yearning and bitterness. He's just so great. Keaton is surrounded by a supporting cast that is simply exemplary. Norton brings wily charisma to a character who isn't quite as jerky as he initially seems; Stone is outstanding as Riggan's patient but resentful daughter (her big eyes have never looked so haunted or alive); Zach Galifianakis is legitimately excellent as Riggan's harried producer; and Naomi Watts has a few really terrific, emotional scenes as an actress and ex-lover of Norton's character. This is a dream cast, the kind Outstanding Ensemble SAG Awards were made for.
BIRDMAN is a movie that isn't even really possible to accurately describe or explain. It's an experience, an operatic examination of the creative process and the roadblocks that mark our lives. It's a brilliant piece of work.
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