This isn’t just a movie, it’s a sucker punch. “Birdman” is the kind of wonderful surprise you suffer through hundreds of other movies each year to get to. It’s perfection of form, and it achieves every creative aspiration with a level of success that would make even the most experienced filmmakers envy. These films—these evolutionary steps in the medium—are such a pleasure to watch, mainly because they are so rare. There’s a great deal of space between a good and great film. Between a great film and a masterpiece is a sum a thousand times greater. “Birdman” has achieved that distinction.
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is an aging celebrity, desperately searching for something real. The bulk of his career is well behind him: His best years were spent wearing a rubberized muscle suit, a pair of wings and a mask, playing the fictional comic-book character Birdman. This made him a worldwide success, but it didn’t bring him the respect he felt he deserved. Riggan has decided to bankroll a Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It’s the kind of bold, brazen move made by a desperate man with too much money, not enough sense and a faulty compass.
The production is days away from its first previews, and Riggan is short a second male lead, thanks to some poorly rigged lights (or Riggan’s secret powers). The role is filled by a New York theatre mainstay, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). Shiner is everything Riggan is not: a natural talent (all id) and a walking attitude that gets off on rubbing people the wrong way. He represents the theatrical actor—the ones who are all about an honest performance and bemoan the sellouts in Hollywood creating cookie-cutter crap. The entire movie plays with this theme: the dispensability of big-budget filmmaking and the audiences who seem to have an insatiable appetite for these blockbusters.
Riggan is plagued by his comic-book movie past. He still hears the dark, brooding voices in his head of his fictional alter ego, which try to sway him away from his dreams of being taken seriously as a legitimate actor.
The backstage antics of the play are what make “Birdman” so entertaining. While Riggan’s psychosis is interesting, the wider tapestry of a seemingly doomed stage production brings a sense of brisk fun to the proceedings. The movie’s one-take style of cinematography drifts through the bowels of the St. James Theatre, moving from one tableau to the next, following the stories of several members of the cast. A neurotic bunch of ne’er-do-wells, who like Riggan are looking for that one moment where they feel they’ve finally achieved their dreams. Unfortunately, our dreams often can produce nightmares. As Riggan’s play comes closer to opening, he becomes more detached from reality.
“Birdman” is brilliantly directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Babel”) who has created something strange, tragic and ultimately beautiful. His strength of vision is buoyed by an exceptional cast led by Michael Keaton. It feels like years since we’ve seen Keaton. He’s is perfectly suited for this role, having spent a couple of years as Batman. There’s an added layer of fun with Keaton; every word feels more honest, and the tragedy seems more palpable as he hasn’t exactly transitioned into the next phase of his career with the same success he had in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Likewise, Edward Norton feels like he’s playing a hyper-charged version of his own notoriously difficult personality. He is both brilliant and maddening, walking that line between the guy you’d like to be and the guy you’d like to punch. Emma Stone emotes fantastically as Riggan’s out-of-rehab daughter in a wonderfully understated performance.
“Birdman” is a movie that should produce strong reactions. Like so many masterpieces, there will be those inspired by the madness unfolding before them and those who find it confusing and strange. I was squarely in the first category and loved every devilish moment. “Birdman” is an invigorating shot to the face and an amazing dissertation on the difference between entertainment and art. I adored it so much that I could easily see placing it in the 10 best films I’ve ever seen: perfectly staged, beautifully shot, with heartbreaking performances.
Everybody online seems to be examining all the grand themes and ideas in “Interstellar,” which truthfully is a movie about as smart as a box of defective hammers. “Birdman” examines loftier themes and more frightening places without ever leaving the Great White Way of Manhattan.
Starring Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis and Edward Norton
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu