Birdman centers on an intense 2-3 day period in the weird life of Riggan Thompson. From the get-go, this movie operates on a level that’s so “meta” that it’s potentially distracting or pretentious: Riggan is currently a wreck because he’s a neurotic thespian writing, directing, producing, and starring in his potential comeback – a Broadway play based on a short story by Raymond Carver. Riggan is a long-absent actor whose career is overwhelmed by the highly-successful superhero franchise he starred in decades ago... And Riggan is portrayed by Michael Keaton, the same guy who played the lead in Tim Burton’s late 80’s/early 90’s Batman films. The picture’s barely begun and yet you wonder if the writer/director is making fun of the viewer.
I could take ages unpacking this movie. It has a subtitle, but unlike Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, this one is parenthetical. It centers on a Raymond Carver short story, and uses part of a poem of his for its opening text. I have no problem doing the research necessary to look into and piece these elements together – in fact, I take pleasure from it – but I don’t know how helpful any of it would be. We’re talking about a picture wherein the things that just happen are not constrained by a consistent internal logic. Hell, the opening scene has Thompson flying and using telekinesis – while having a debate with an internal voice that’s supposed to be Riggan’s old Birdman role, a voice that’s as “gritty” and “rough” as the growl Christian Bale used in Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
So what can I tell someone who hasn’t seen this movie yet? For starters, it’s a visual masterwork. The CGI is smooth and looks beautiful, used to create various different effects during the picture’s running time. Each location feels real (I’ve been to most of them repeatedly), with set dressing that’s distractingly natural. Many (or most) shots are noticeably beautiful, and it kind of looks as if every single trick – odd angles, forced perspective, use of dark spaces to hide edits – is employed here.
But it’s the design to the cinematography that probably steals the show - Birdman is filmed so that the camera floats from one scene to another, throughout and over the theater Riggan has rented, as well as the Midtown Manhattan streets surrounding it. Through editing, it appears as if we’re watching one long camera take in and around its setting, and the shots are just f--king gorgeous. As a professional photographer, I can say it: the execution of the camera movement and creating effective transitions from one scene to the next is about as fine a bit of work as I’ve ever seen.
It's also a wildly funny film. Very few actual jokes are made by the players, but you can tell that writer-director Iñárritu has a strong and sharp comic mind. He uses situational humor as nicely as he does comedic lines, employs absurdism and satire, and the nature of the jokes range from gentle to urbane to kind of vicious. Like Gone Girl, Birdman is a very, very modern film, especially in the dialogue. I'm... really struggling not to spoil any of the lines here, so just know that I'm a comedian and I say it's dead-funny.