I first saw trailers for “Birdman” back in July. The film follows a former superhero movie star, Riggan Thompson, as he tries to shake his Birdman image and make a name for himself on Broadway. Real-life superhero movie star Michael Keaton plays Thompson. Thompson’s foil is the young, talented, but difficult to work with method actor, Mike, played by the famously difficult to work with Edward Norton. At least that’s what I gleaned from the trailers all those months ago.
The film has since won four of the nine Academy Awards for which it was nominated at this year’s Oscars. “Birdman” took home Best Achievement in Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay and perhaps most importantly Best Achievement in Directing and Best Picture.
When I watched the Oscars, I hadn’t seen any of the Best Picture contenders. I marveled at this movie that had been marketed as a pseudo-indie comedy taking home such accolades. I had to see what the fuss was about.
“Birdman” may have been a victim of its own marketing strategy. The trailers make it look like a true comedy. IMDb classifies it as both a comedy and a drama. At the Golden Globes, Keaton took home Best Actor in a Comedy. In short, audiences were lead to believe this movie would make them laugh.
I am not saying “Birdman” didn’t make me laugh. It did. But the film is a dark comedy. In fact, it comes closer to being a drama with comedic elements. The plot itself, a washed-up actor struggling to be taken seriously, is inherently sad. Thompson’s Broadway production, which he wrote, directed and starred in, can’t even make it to the bows without something going embarrassingly wrong.
If Thompson’s play is a metaphor for his life, he is one of the most pitiable characters I’ve ever encountered. Not because he is a shining example of the human condition or an all-around good guy, but because he, like his play, is trying so hard to be important and coming up short. His own daughter, played wonderfully by Emma Stone, reports his insignificance to his face.
“Birdman” is heartbreaking, yet it’s a comedy. Most of the laughs are subtle, industry inside jokes and god help the viewer who didn’t know Keaton used to play Batman. The filmmakers rely on this assumed common knowledge as the set-up and the punch line for the entire movie.
It acts as kind of a “what if” scenario: what if Michael Keaton was so burdened by his masked past that he started hearing Batman’s voice and the only way to silence it was to become successful on Broadway? That’s “Birdman.”
Norton is the true comedic relief of the film, with his over-the-top method acting antics. Mike is about as close as a person gets to being a Broadway diva without ever actually winning a Tony. He changes the lines of entire scenes, drinks on stage during performances and has a tanning bed delivered to the theater on the production’s dime.
Edward Norton has a bit of a reputation for being difficult on set. He was recast in his one superhero role as The Incredible Hulk for this very reason. Here he is playing a parody of himself, using that high-maintenance reputation for laughs. And the joke works–but only if you already know the punch line.
I enjoyed the movie because, being the pop culture fanatic that I am, I knew the reputations of both actors. Without that knowledge, Keaton’s character is just a sad, washed-up actor and Norton’s character is just a self-important jerk. Without that knowledge, the movie would be almost too bleak to watch.