In a time when nearly every superhero is being given a gritty reboot and new life at the box office, the idea of resurrecting the almost-forgotten Birdman seems like it must be an ironic in-joke. Unlike the unfortunately very real upcoming reboot of Aquaman, that is not the road that Birdman has gone down. Rejoice, because Birdman is not a shallow attempt to revitalise a defunct superhero franchise for a new generation, but it is a taut, clever and profound black comedy, full of meta-fictional genius and sharp, witty performances to match.
Michael Keaton leads the ensemble cast as Riggan Thomson, a man who was once famous for playing the titular superhero in movies, before leaving the franchise behind him. Decades on, he is attempting to complete a self-written, self-directed, self-funded stage adaptation of Raymond Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," starring himself. Rounding out the uniformly excellent ensemble cast are formidable performances from Zach Galifianakis, who is repeatedly proving himself to be capable of more than just being goofy, as Riggan's best friend and lawyer Jake, the always beautiful and graceful Naomi Watts as actress Lesley, Edward Norton, showing impeccable comic timing as Broadway veteran Mike Shiner, Emma Stone as Riggan's adult daughter, and Andrea Riseborough as Laura, another actress who also happens to be Riggan's girlfriend.
For Mexican director Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu, Birdman is a huge shift in tone. Known for his Death Trilogy (Amores perros, 21 Grams and Babel), made in collaboration with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, as well as raw realist dramas like Biutiful, he has never delivered a movie as funny and playful as Birdman. However, while the film may diverge in tone from the director's impressive past work, it still bears all the trademarks of his exceptional sense of taste and style. He has always been at his best when working with ensembles and overlapping poly-narratives that rest on coincidence, recurrence and ambiguity. His touch creates something almost mystical out of a story that could have been just another washed-up-actor tale.
The film is set entirely in and around New York's iconic St. James Theatre. The camera, its moves choreographed with incredible skill by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who was responsible for the breathtaking images in last year's Gravity, prowls through the corridors and down the streets, following the film's large ensemble cast. The effect of the constantly moving, circling, dipping, diving camera is so immersive, that it takes a while to realise that the bulk of the movie does not feature a single discernible cut. Time passes, characters come and go, changing costumes, but the camera never appears to stop rolling; each scene is seamlessly stitched onto the preceding one. The effect of this is to create something frenzied and exciting, an effect doubled by the impeccable sound design that makes excellent use of the capabilities of stereo sound, as well as the incredible jazz drum score by Antonio Sánchez.
The score straddles the line between diegetic and non-diegetic. The audience is under the impression that the music exists only on the soundtrack, only for the camera to pan over and reveal a drummer seated nearby. In the same way, the film straddles the line between reality and fantasy, specifically regarding Riggan and his relationship to the character of Birdman. The way the film negotiates this divide between the inner life of its central character and the real world is elegant, subtle and detailed in a way that would reward many repeat viewings. When everything becomes clear, it is one of those profoundly satisfying eureka moments, even if the truth of the film's events is a dark one.
As opening night looms on the horizon, and the play at the centre of the film is worked and re-worked through several preview performances, things start to spin out of control. Riggan is wounded by the callousness of his daughter, struggling with his relationship with Laura, and threatened with an abysmal review with the delightfully icy theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (the role of a lifetime for Lindsay Duncan). It's a remarkable achievement that throughout all of this, the film remains focused and engaging, with each moment adding up to the strange, fantastical ending.
With an incredible amount of attention to detail making this a tightly woven and very compelling piece of cinema, some may find certain ambiguities of the screenplay hard to stomach. There is a point at which the more fantastic elements of the film seem to resolve into something cleanly logical and very effective, but then film's beginning and ending still leave things extremely uncertain. Of course, there are some who would love to be left dangling like that, and asked to sincerely question the entire movie, while others would prefer something with this amount of character-driven, psychological complexity to be neatly tied up.
That complaint is ultimately a minor one, because Birdman is one of the most original, confidently made comedy films in years. The film itself is quick to point out that it is not the kind of movie for lovers of the violent, action-packed superhero reboots that it so gleefully lambasts at points, but that is not to say that it is inaccessible or difficult. Birdman is absorbing, funny and subversive, without hiding behind the kind of art house pretention that could have marred it. Even if it doesn't sound like your kind of superhero movie, see it anyway and it might change your mind.
Birdman opens in cinemas in Australia and New Zealand on January 15.