Set almost entirely inside and within the surrounding city block of a New York Broadway theater, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is every bit a story about place as it is about its satirically overblown characters. Starring such notables as Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, and Emma Stone, Iñárritu’s film is also an often darkly witty caricature of backstage theater life behind the curtains.
In a desperate attempt to revitalize his artistic relevance as an actor decades after his popular portrayal of comic book hero Birdman, wholly irrelevant Hollywood star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) decides to refinance his Malibu home to pay for his actor/director/writer led vanity Broadway play based upon Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Riggan must also cope with self-destructive bouts of relentless mocking and derision from the disembodied voice of Birdman, as well as the backstage business of producing a Broadway show: managing the vainglorious antics of co-star and famous method actor, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), Shiner’s self-obsessed romantic relationship with co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts), and trying not to forget about the personal existence of his daughter/personal assistant, Sam (Emma Stone), recently home from rehab.
Filmed as if nearly shot in one single take without any noticeable cuts, the camera follows different characters upstairs and down through claustrophobic backstage hallways and thoroughly used, dingy dressing rooms, wherever there is the promise of dramatic action.
Though the narrative is essentially focused around the titular Birdman, or rather the washed-up husk of celebrity who once portrayed him, Iñárritu proves wise enough about pacing to let the camera follow other characters, which allows the other Broadway players to show their own depth and life unrelated to Riggan. I was always curious with interested anticipation to see whom the camera would follow next after the climax of any conversation or confrontation between characters. For film technique enthusiasts, Birdman is a marvel of photographic direction and mise-en-scène.
Whether or not you are excited by interesting and atypical technical authorship in film, Birdman viewers will be entertained nonetheless. While very heavy in dialogue, the script is continuously witty, and nearly every dramatic climax between characters (I struggle to call them scenes due to absence of cuts) either ends or begins a laugh out loud punch line to be carried over to the next encounter.
A film full of excellent one-liners intermingled with building jokes, the undercurrent of humor is often dark in tone, so I would caution those wanting a lighthearted comedy. Yet Birdman’s dry wit greatly compliments the overburdened tension of Riggan’s life, thus creating and strengthening the audience’s necessary comedic relief; Birdman’s humor is all the more fun because the viewer is most always laughing at the ridiculous, self-indulgent characters, not with them.
And it is the best kind of humor that does not know itself to be humorous.
Photos via: Fox Searchlight Pictures