Riggan might be a decent stage actor and might have even nailed it as a playwright, but his inner voice, the thunderous growl of his alter-ego Birdman overwhelms his entire on-the-edge present existence. Even when he is in the lotus position, meditating in his underwear, and levitating off the ground in his dressing room of the St James Theater, his former incarnation is constantly taking over, overcrowding his mind.
The film is an expressionistic backstage journey through Riggan's mind as it slowly begins to drift south throughout the play's previews. Magnificently photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki, who won an Oscar last year for the cinematography of Gravity, the film gives the appearance that it was shot in one long, continuous take: no doubt, the director's homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, which pulled the same balancing act trick back in 1948.
Birdman is also referential to a host of artistic icons, and particularly right at home when it channels the Magical-Realism of 1960s Latin American literature. Riggan is able to levitate and make objects smash to the ground with a wave of his hand like any one of the Buendía children in Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. He is also able to soar up to the skies, in the middle of a colossal cgi fracas, and defeat a winged gigantic creature who threatens to destroy Manhattan from the rooftops, like a latter-day King Kong.
But it is the performances in this backstage drama that propel this film forward. Think of Birdman as a magical-realist All About Eve but with the ghost of an action hero and references to Roland Barthes and Jorge Luis Borges. Not only is Michael Keaton the perfect actor to play a former action hero movie star searching for a come back vehicle (its been almost thirty years since the release of Tim Burton's Batman), but Edward Norton manages to play a fictionalized version of himself, with all the complexities that those in the know say he brings to a set. Emma Stone and Naomi Watts also shine, as well as Zach Galifianakis, playing against type, as Keaton's feet-on-the-ground manager.
Birdman is a smash hit in quite a lot of levels, and it will certainly bring Academy Award nominations for many categories. I predict an Oscar for Mr. Iñárritu's fascinating, multi-faceted screenplay, and without a doubt, another statuette in a row for Mr. Lubezki's amazing cinematography that I predict will be talked about and studied by future filmmakers for years to come.