No, it’s not a semi-autobiographical movie based on Michael Keaton’s life, even if his performance is incredibly sincere and authentic. Rather, Birdman — or the movie in which a famed real-life superhero actor plays an actor who once played Birdman — is a mid-life crisis or the symbol of one in a meta-tastic film that’s like nothing you’ve probably seen.
Riggan Thompson (Keaton) is about to premiere a new Broadway play based on Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” As director, writer, and starring actor, Thompson has poured his life savings into the project as well as the last hopeful remnants of his legacy, and he’s starting to fall apart at the seams. When he’s not arguing with his inner Birdman, a super-alpha version of himself that waits for weak moments to tempt him back to the dark side of a Hollywood-miserable life, Riggan walks a mean tightrope as he juggles his out-of-rehab daughter, a cast of actors that includes his just-announced pregnant girlfriend, and the expectations of all his fans and critics.
When one of his actors takes a stage light to the face, Broadway darling Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) comes to the rescue, but the clash of egos puts Riggan on a downward spiral as he loses control of the production, his own sanity, and possibly his one last chance to prove himself as a true actor.
Shot in one faux-take by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman’s camera hovers around, flying from cast member to cast member, then leaving one sphere to pierce another. The film’s main theme of relevance is explored brilliantly this way as ideas and contrasting ideas are interspersed and blended.
While Riggan hopes the play will build something permanent and noteworthy for himself and his legacy, Shiner knows only the theater — it’s the one place he can really be himself.
For each life, there’s a pocket universe, and it’s when they collide that relationships are formed, ideas are created, and damage is done.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu is a genius director, and every single moment, scene, and line is so pertinent to every other thing — no second is wasted. Even as scenes melt into each other, and Thompson seemingly shows off some superhero powers of his own, there’s a lucidity that keeps it somehow grounded.
It’s sort of like a word that sits at the tip of the tongue. We know everything that lies behind the meaning of the word except for the word itself, waiting to be spoken.
When Birdman ends, we’re left wondering for that word, though all the feelings and ideas about our wants, needs, and innermost desires to be loved are drawn out.