It stars Michael Keaton as movie star who "used to be" Birdman, a movie superhero. But that was a long time ago - now he is producing, directing and starring in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love on the Broadway stage. You are clearly supposed to think about Michael Keaton, who used to be Batman, because this movie is very meta.
Keaton winds up playing opposite Ed Norton, a brash, hot, young method actor (just like Norton in real life). He's a real jerk, but he is a good actor. We get quite a bit of acting, both in the rehearsals, and off-stage. There are a lot of monologues in this movie, and they don't all come from Carver. More meta.
Then, little by little, we realize that Keaton is going crazy. I'll try not to spoiler this too much, except to say that it is very sad and tense, and very funny, slapstick even.
Two interesting stylistic choices in the movie:
- Very long takes: Some people say the movie is one long take with no visible cuts. Not true, but some takes appear to be 15-20 minutes long. This is supposed to be immersive, and it is, although I wonder if we needed so many shots with the camera following someone walking down a corridor. I found myself thinking about acting with your shoulders - what can you convey emotionally in a medium shot of the back of your head.
- Solo drummer for the soundtrack: Most of the music was provided by a single jazz drummer. It gave the movie a ton of energy and tension. It even made some relatively quiet or normal scenes seem climactic - what else are you supposed to feel when cymbals crash? Also, there's some nice classical music, mainly for the play-within-the-movie.
So, you've got a funny, but very dark, comedy. It has a bunch of stylistic tricks, pulled off flawlessly. It has a lot to say about acting, movies, theater, fame and sanity. I'm sure the last one is what got the Academy.