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Some superhero movies are like icing-laden cupcakes, all cloying eye candy with no substance. Not indie film Birdman, no, never—it is the anti-superhero movie stuffed with so much self-aware irony and cynical satire that it goes hard and heavy down the gullet, like nutty fruitcake.
Birdman (rated R for language, sexual content, and brief violence) begins with aging actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) hovering above his dressing room floor in deep meditation. He can move objects telekinetically, too, and he constantly hears a voice growling profanities and derision at him. If you can get past the messy first 30 minutes of the film, it gradually becomes evident that Riggan has no supernatural powers. He’s just haunted by his alter ego, Birdman, a comic book hero he once played.
Once a rich and beloved star, Riggan is now riding on the last wave of his stardom, and that knowledge torments him. He’s sacrificed everything to rebirth himself as a serious thespian in a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. This play is his last shot to do something that “means something”—but his co-star Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) is a scene-stealing diva, his daughter/assistant Sam (Emma Stone) is resentful and fresh out of rehab, and the pickle-faced New York Times theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) already hates his guts.
Despite addressing lofty themes such as bruised superegos, authenticity of art, and delusions of self-grandeur that the audience will digest for days, it’s not exactly clear what Birdman is trying to prove. Many of the themes are self-reflections of writer-director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who’s been known to produce self-serious, seriously depressing movies, and Keaton, whose career escalated into fleeting fame by twice playing Batman. Ironically, Iñárritu has made a rather pretentious, overly philosophical film about pretentious, philosophizing artists.
Little doubt, Birdman will become a cult classic. It’s not too fun to watch, but it’s got the right dose of eccentricity, dark humor, and superb acting that’s wacky without being over-the-top. But for those who would rather explore the same themes with a more solid conclusion, there’s always Ecclesiastes.