This dark and surreal comedy-drama is an exploration of fame, ego and self-obsession. It makes you wonder if director Alejando G. Iñárritu’s experience as a director and working closely with actors has inspired this material.
The central character Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is an actor, well known for his role as Birdman in a movie franchise from the 90’s. In an attempt to become a respected actor and not just some superhero celebrity, he tries to make a comeback by directing and starring in a Broadway play, adapted from a Raymond Carver story. But Riggan can’t leave the Birdman behind; the superhero remains as a taunting alter ego, talking to Riggan, criticising hims: “how did we end up here? This place is horrible. Smells like balls. We don’t belong here”.
We follow Riggan in the run up to the opening night of his play and nothing seems to run smoothly. After one of leading actors is knocked out by a theatre lamp, the talented actor Mike (Edward Norton) is hired to go in his place. But Mike with his larger than life ego immediately creates drama off the stage as well as on it. Riggan’s daughter Sam, played by Emma Stone, having recently come out of rehab, adds to the backstage frenzy.
Emmanuel Lubezki Morgenstern’s cinematography is brilliant. The film is visually impressive whether capturing the claustrophobic backstage corridors, dirty dressing rooms, the lit up city streets at night or the colourful and surreal looking Broadway stage. The film is visually and musically seamless and looks as though it was filmed in one continuous shot (although of course, this is done with clever camera tricks).
The continuity extends to the representation of the real and the imagined. In one scene, we see a busker in the New York streets playing the drums that constitute the film score. In another scene, Riggan passes the busker playing the drums in a corridor backstage of the theatre. The action weaves seamlessly between reality and Riggan’s delusional fantasy world; the occasional ambiguous moment leaving the audience to guess what is real. The result is nicely disorientating, leaving us almost as confused as the sleep-deprived, delusional Riggan. It is also worth noting Antonio Sanchez, the composer behind this pounding drum score which serves to intensify the tense drama and the sense of Riggan’s growing anxiety.
Whilst Birdman is entertaining, it is not without problems. Namely, it lacks some needed humanity as most of the characters are exaggerated and difficult to empathise with. Riggan’s dwindling sanity coincides with his obsession with success, making him somewhat pitiful; when something goes wrong, he retreats to his dressing room and uses telekinetic power to throw objects around in an angry rage. Norton’s Mike Shiner is a caricature of a self-absorbed actor and Sam is practically defined by her own resentment of her father.
This aside, there is still plenty to enjoy in Birdman including the fine performances from the cast, particularly Michael Keaton who displays a range of emotions as well as varying degrees of madness. Edward Norton is perfect as the actor who cares about his stage and performances more than his real life relationships. The script is also very funny, full of black humour and sharp lines like, “popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige”.
Overall, this is an entertaining and stylish film that explores its themes with wit and confidence. Despite its problems, Birdman is worth seeing if you haven’t already.