Director Alejandro González Iñárritu has done plenty of serious, socially-aware dramas before, but in "Birdman," he tries his hand at black comedy - and the results are laugh-out-loud hilarious:
The movie features Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson, a washed-up Hollywood actor famous for playing the titular character in a series of superhero flicks decades ago. With the last of his fortune, Riggan attempts to make a comeback by writing and starring in his own play at the St. James Theatre, an adaptation of Raymond Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love."
The joke here, of course, is that Keaton himself gained worldwide fame as Tim Burton's Batman (actually, two other main cast members - Edward Norton and Emma Stone - have also starred in big-budget comic book movies). However, while Iñárritu lightly criticizes both the pandering of blockbusters and the pretentiousness of Broadway, he's fundamentally in love with show business of all types, and the only audience that goes home unhappy in "Birdman" is the one that doesn't get to see Riggan's play all the way through.
In terms of style, "Birdman" is a complete 180 from the complex, nonlinear narratives of "21 Grams" and "Babel." The film is shot in simulated long takes; the camera follows various characters as they weave in and out of the St. James Theatre. It's bravura cinematography, to be sure, but perhaps even better is the music, a frenzied mess of (sometimes diegetic) percussion. The soundtrack does a lot to sell Riggan's escalating tension, despite the fact that the plot's stakes are inherently low (no one will die if Riggan's play fails...maybe).
Michael Keaton gives an excellent performance here, one that should handily earn him an Academy Award nod. He's always been able to portray manic obsession convincingly ("You wanna get nuts?"), and Riggan certainly experiences his fair share of that, but Keaton also does good work in the quieter moments of the film. He carefully nurtures Riggan's bond with his daughter (Emma Stone), and his portrayal ensures that the ending of "Birdman" is an emotional catharsis, not a cheat.