“Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” This quote from Edward Norton in “Birdman” can give viewers a lot of insight into what kind of movie they’re getting themselves into. The two-hour film co-written and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu gives a dialogue on the madness that drives ego, celebrity and art.
The movie focuses on an aging actor named Riggan Thomson (played by Michael Keaton) decades after being the popular superhero movie star Birdman. He has developed a serious artistic endeavor and is writing, directing and starring in a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver story.
Thomson tirelessly and eccentrically juggles preview nights of his play, dodging questions about Birdman and trying to form a relationship with his grown daughter (Emma Stone). All the while trying to balance and handle all the colorful characters of the play, his complex life takes the viewer through a bizarre, yet poignant journey.
Keaton is outstanding as Thomson. The viewers are invited into his inner dialogue, which is apparently the voice of Birdman who constantly tells Thomson that he is better than any other actor in the world because he is an artistic genius and can fly (literally) high above everyone else.
Thomson has a bizarre obsession to step out of Birdman’s shadow while simultaneously approaching his problems with Birdman’s voice in mind. Keaton magnificently shows the struggle of Thomson’s confusion between real love and the adoration of fans.
The supporting cast, in Thomson’s play and in the film, create a vibrant and intriguing context for “Birdman.” Zach Galifianakis is hilarious, yet subtle, as Thomson’s best friend and co-producer. Norton is the seasoned Broadway actor Mike Shiner, obsessed with a sense of truth and honesty of life, and yet only able to be honest with himself when he’s on the stage. Norton shows dynamic range, hilarious debauchery and excellently matches (and spars with) Keaton’s intensity.
The ever-amazing Emma Stone plays Sam, Thomson’s daughter who has just left rehab, and is working as her absentee father’s assistant at the theatre. Her snarky attitude towards Thomson’s dedication to acting illustrates a wonderful balance between ego and the price of it. She points out to Thomson that even though the world has been around for billions of years, humans have only been here for 150 thousand, and “all the rest is ego. How ridiculous is that?”
The smart, fast and at times uncomfortably funny script highlights the incredible characters and layered storyline. The film simultaneously poses significant philosophical questions, while satirizing the fact that Hollywood only wants big, exploding blockbuster films. The critique is evident and well-developed in the film, and even reflected in the cinematography.
The shots are all very up-close and personal on the actors, giving the viewer a sense that we are walking with the characters down hallways and just over the shoulder of their conversations. It’s intimate and an effective juxtaposition to the film’s eccentricities. The story, like the close camera through a narrow hallway, is able to move through its own narrative in an unexpectedly stealthy way.
“Birdman” is an excellent blend of dark humor, philosophy and social critique of Hollywood today. Most of all, the top-notch performances given by its sublime cast, Keaton especially, contribute vastly to the darkly comical journey through the mind of Riggan Thomson.
ONLY RECOMMENDED IF: You appreciate the action of words, not explosions and superheroes, to move a story.