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BIRDMAN is a film dense with existential questing and the absurdity of the human condition A faded movie star, desperate to be taken seriously as an artist after selling out to pop culture, finds the play he is staging taking on strange parallels to his own life, even as the some of the actors in the film strike parallels to their public personas. The result is a trenchant black comedy with a tinge of tragedy and a novel definition of a happy ending that is a philosophical treatise and a challenging but ultimately satisfying entertainment.
The faded movie star is Riggan Thompson, who made his mark as a comic-book hero on the big screen only to fall into obscurity after bowing out of BIRDMAN 4. Michael Keaton, who plays Riggan, has a not dissimilar story with his BATMAN past, the which adds a verisimilitude to the action, and teases the audience with what is deliberately parallel and what isn’t. There is also Edward Norton as the Broadway star who is the darling of the public and the press, but a narcissist in real life, and such are the rumors about Norton, though, personal disclaimer, he was charming both times I interviewed him. The meta personalities don’t so much loom over the story as they are part and parcel with the thrust of the film, which is that tug between reality and image, stardom and talent, truth and fiction. Tellingly, Riggan has a quote tucked into the corner of his make-up mirror to the effect that what is said about a thing is not the thing itself.
The problem is that Riggan is sure about what he wants to be perceived as, but is not so sure that he actually has the chops to be a writer, director, and serious actor on the Broadway stage. His inner voice, that of Birdman, cajoles and heckles him, tearing into his weakest points without mercy. As does his semi-estranged daughter, Sam (Emma Stone) with a passive aggression that erupts into a vitriolic storm executed by Stone with a terrifying sense of truth and pain.
Alejandro Inarritu cleverly darts between Riggan’s inner life of power and despair and the reality of those around him, lending both a sense of magical realism that the paradoxically heightened reality of the theater world engenders. Sumptuous, vertiginous tracking shots create the inescapable claustrophobia of ego, while parallels such as that between two very different blondes sitting at two different bars and passing judgment on Riggen offer a sense of hell as repetition.
Keaton is magnificent. The power of his performance in simultaneously clinging to and running from his winged demon is both exhilarating and enchanting in the classic sense of the latter. It is as rich and complex as the script, hinting at everything yet giving away nothing, preferring truth to convention.
BIRDMAN provokes, shocks, and delights. There is nothing else like it, and probably never will be again.