Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman has plenty to say about the current mega-blockbuster movie culture that we live in and have for some time. The screenplay (by the director along with Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo) puts in its two cents regarding the power that critics have, which is highly debatable in the Internet culture. Ironically, while Inarritu and his team may share a disdain for them, it is likely the rave reviews and Oscar buzz Birdman has received that will grant it a larger audience than expected. Yet, ultimately, this picture will be remembered as a story of an actor trying to make a comeback while giving its actual star one humdinger of a real one.
That would be Michael Keaton in the kind of part that most actors dream about and never get to play. He’s Riggan Thomson, an aging celebrity known to the world for his role as Birdman in a series of wildly popular comic book flicks from two decades ago. As you can gather, this is not much of a stretch for Keaton himself who brought Batman to the masses a quarter century ago. In the present day, he’s directing, writing, and starring in a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver short story. He sees it as an opportunity to make himself relevant again and yet he’s haunted by his famous alter ego. The production of the play is a mess, which reflects Riggan’s personal life. He employs his fresh out of rehab daughter (Emma Stone) as his assistant. One of his actresses is his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), who may or may not be carrying his child. His ex-wife (Amy Ryan) turns up from time to time. Riggan makes life difficult for his lawyer and “best friend” (Zach Galifianakis). And his main co-stars (Edward Norton and Naomi Watts) are action packed with emotional issues.
Birdman shows us an actor on the edge of sanity who is grappling with this massive undertaking of the play and dealing with his wilting fame. He feels like he’s doing something of utmost importance while those around him may not see it that way. The screenplay doesn’t shy away from humorously but honestly ribbing the healthy egos that actors are often known for displaying. Norton’s character could perhaps be based on himself, if you believe the gossip about how difficult he is to work with in real life.
While the pic pokes its dark humor from time to time at the superhero genre craze, it cheekily employs three actors who’ve been a part of them: Keaton, Stone (Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man), and Norton (The Incredible Hulk). And while Inarritu could feel those movies are just visual fluff, Birdman itself is a technical marvel, so to speak. There is a visual trickery to make the film seem like one long continuous take and the result from Emmanuel Lubezki’s camerawork is often hypnotic.
The supporting cast is uniformly top-notch. Every performance is rock solid and every actor gets their moments to shine. Let me there be no doubt though – this is Keaton’s show. People who describe themselves as “movie people” (pretentiously or not) all seem to have a Keaton affinity. Part of it could be that he’s the original Caped Crusader in the blockbuster area. Same goes for Beetlejuice. We’ve never seen him like this, but I believe we always suspected he was capable of this kind of amazing performance. Here, Keaton must balance portraying several alter egos and it’s a joy to witness.
Birdman is not necessarily a movie for the masses. Its pitch black humor could fall flat with some while others will deem it too inside baseball. The ending may be perfect to some viewers, but it took one step too far into unnecessary ambiguity for my taste. There’s a terrific scene when Riggan tells off The New York Times theater critic (Lindsay Duncan). On one hand, he feels liberated telling her what he really thinks of her high-mindedness and misguided sense of self importance. On the other, he’s terrified of her negative review. This explains Riggan’s character in a way – looking for liberation where he may not ever find it and scared as hell the whole time. That probably describes the way a lot of actors truly feel and Birdman drives that point home in an original, often funny, and constantly interesting ways.
***1/2 (out of four)