A soulful satire that venerates cinema’s artistic merits while condemning it’s contamination through commercialisation.

If you’ve noticed during previous telecasts of the Academy Awards, there’s always a short spoof movie they play at the beginning of the event. It’s a parody of the year’s top films where Hollywood lampoons itself. They just love to be at the center of the joke as long as the joke is told by them. Directed, produced and co-written by unconventional Mexican filmmaker Alejandro G Iñárritu, Birdman, sub-titled Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, is one such wholesome parody – a pitch black satire where Hollywood makes roaring fun of Hollywood.

And it’s a ton of fun from the very first scene where we see Michael Keaton levitating in his underwear. Setting off a chain of parodies is Keaton playing Riggan Thompson, a washed-up middle aged actor whose last blockbuster saw him playing the titular superhero in the 1992 sequel, “Birdman 3”. Now 20 years on, he is desperately grasping for former glory by trying to reinvent himself as a theatre artist.  As the director and producer of a Broadway play, Riggan has a few problems to tackle, starting with his alter ego, the growling and grotesque voice of Birdman (also Keaton) who taunts Riggan into insecurity and regret. These are bizarre sequences and we are left guessing whether Riggan is mentally unstable or possess supernatural abilities no one else knows about. His second problem is the passive-aggressive nature of his lead actor, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). Known for his brilliant method acting but also infamously impulsive and abrasive, Norton is another caricature of himself as Shiner, an actor whose outbursts leads to a series of disasters on the play’s preview nights. With the big opening night just around the corner, Riggan is left to overcome his final obstacle – A New York Times theatre critic (Lindsay Duncun) who loathes Hollywood celebrities for commercialising and thus tainting what was once true art in theatre.

One of the main parodies of this multi-layered film is the fact that the current horde of superhero films from DC Entertainment and Marvel Studios didn’t quite exist until Keaton kick-started the genre in 1989 by playing the titular superhero in Batman. It gets better. Keaton hasn’t been in the limelight since his 1992 blockbuster sequel, Batman Returns, the same year Riggan peaked in his acting career. Coincidence? Not really. Such is the ingenuity of this film but Keaton and Norton aren’t the only ones lampooned and we’ll get to that later. Comprising of an ensemble cast, Iñárritu has plenty on offer and they all deliver in uniformity starting with Emma Stone as Riggan’s feisty daughter and assistant, Zach Galfianakis as his best friend and manager, Naomi Watts as his lead actress on her first Broadway show, and Amy Ryan as his ex-wife and voice of reason.

Why Birdman will be an Academy Award magnet is obvious. Besides Keaton’s comeback of the century and Norton’s outstanding delivery, this film is theoretically a movie within a movie and thematically about an actor making a comeback. That’s ample flattery to win over The Academy and precisely why The Artist went Oscar crazy in 2011. But irrespective of how this film fares at the 2015 Academy Awards, the real pull is how intensely immersive this film is in creativity, imagination, performance and technical excellence. After winning an Academy Award for last year’s Gravity, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is back with more wizardry by shooting the entire film in one continuous take; Seamless digital binding, yes, but otherwise impossible to achieve conventionally. And bolstering the pace is some fantastic music from composer Antonio Sanchez who uses just percussion instruments with perfect timing.

That Iñárritu ends the film with ambiguity could be received with mixed reactions. Like Christopher Nolan before, Iñárritu leaves it open to interpretation and that’s always a good thing when giving a film a long lasting impression. Thoroughly entertaining with endless hilarity, both slapstick and dark, Birdman plays on cinema’s artistic merits while simultaneously condemning it’s contamination through commercialisation. To this effect there’s a mini action scene dedicated to the kind of profound stupidity found in a Michael Bay film. Another shot of a meteor plummeting to Earth speaks volumes about the birth of self destruction and the death of stardom. If you look closely at the fire ball, you can almost see Bay’s name on it.

Rating: ★★★★★

About Lloyd Bayer

Besides his passion for travelling, photography and scuba diving, Lloyd is a prolific film critic having contributed hundreds of film reviews to web and print journals, including IMDb and local daily Khaleej Times.