"Birdman" glides on Keaton's wings
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring Michael Keaton, Ed Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan
Let’s face it: most of us will never know what it’s like to be famous. Most of us will also never know the strange joys and travails of putting on a professional theatrical production, much less a Broadway premiere. On the other hand, most of us do know what it’s like to have a relationship falter or fail, and to be haunted by whether we could have saved it.
Somehow, and for the most part successfully, “Birdman” brings together all of these disparate threads in the story of Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a movie star who’s staking what remains of his celebrity status on a self-written, directed and produced theatrical adaptation of a Raymond Carver story that's about to open on Broadway. The play, as Riggan admits in an unguarded moment, is more than a vanity project: it’s his last-ditch attempt to reassert his cultural relevance, which has diminished sharply since his decades-ago decision to walk away from the blockbuster superhero franchise that made his name.
Unfortunately for Riggan, the wheels seem to be coming off his dramaturgical bus as opening day draws near. One of his lead actors has to be replaced at the last minute by a brilliant but difficult theater star (Ed Norton) whose ego threatens to hijack the entire production. One of the female leads (Naomi Watts), who’s dating Norton’s character, seems perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown, while the other (Andrea Riseborough), who's also Riggan’s girlfriend, informs him she may be pregnant. Meanwhile, Riggan’s daughter (Emma Stone), whom he’s ill-advisedly hired as his assistant, can barely speak a civil word to him; his anxious lawyer/agent (Zach Galifianikis, playing it completely straight) informs him they’re running out of money; and through all these setbacks, Riggan is repeatedly visited by the specter of Birdman, his superhero alter ego (voiced by Keaton, naturally, and hilariously), who mercilessly mocks the entire enterprise.
It's a potentially grim situation, but “Birdman” has a verve and comic energy that’s a welcome change in M.O. for director Alejandro González Iñárritu, up till now best known for the gritty “Amores Perros” and cosmic misery-fests “21 Grams” and “Babel.” Here, he vividly captures the peculiar behind-the-scenes universe of a Broadway play, its fluidity heightened by impressive camera technique (courtesy of the great Emmanuel Lubezki, previously seen performing his magic for directors Alfonso Cuarón and Terrence Malick) that makes the entire film look like it was shot in one long, continuous take. Iñárritu underscores that sense of hyperrealism verging on surrealism with moments in which Riggan, left alone to vent his frustrations, manifests seemingly superhuman (surely imaginary?) powers. Not coincidentally, Birdman almost always makes an appearance—vocally, if not physically—in these scenes. Are such moments signs of a mental crackup, or mental clarity, or maybe, paradoxically, both at the same time? Is anything we’re seeing actually happening outside of Riggan’s mind? The film resolutely, and maybe a little irritatingly for some viewers, declines to answer these questions.
“Birdman” has already been hailed as both a huge comeback for Michael Keaton and a meta-commentary on his own Hollywood career, even though Keaton has said in interviews that he doesn’t personally identify with Riggan, Batman/Birdman comparisons notwithstanding. That may be true. But it’s nice to see Keaton playing in the big leagues again—although, in another quirk of parallelism, or life-imitating-art-imitating-life, he’s very nearly upstaged by his co-star, Ed Norton, who’s a delight to watch as the prima donna Riggan comes to regard as an interloper trying to take over “his” show. Emma Stone, too, vies for most valuable supporting player, taking what could have been a thoroughly grating, clichéd character and rendering her unexpectedly sympathetic. It helps that she has great chemistry with both Norton and Keaton; but then Emma Stone seems to be one of those rare actresses who has chemistry with any co-star, whether it’s Jonah Hill, Ryan Gosling, or Colin Firth.
Still, the movie turns on Keaton’s performance, and Keaton delivers. However staunchly he may disavow the parallels between himself and Riggan, at some level he must understand – and certainly conveys – the bittersweet brew of feelings that drives any man who has lingering regrets as he approaches his twilight years. For all its high-wire technical virtuosity and flirtations with both fantasy and satire, the film’s emotional core is a familiar one. It’s not so much about fame as it is about mortality and its obverse - the desire to leave one’s mark, correct one’s mistakes, reaffirm connections with loved ones, before it’s too late. As such, it leaves open to interpretation whether Riggan succeeds in finding the validation he craves, in an ending that’s sure to divide audiences and that I had to think about for a while before deciding I liked it. It reminded me a little of the ending of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon: In some dimension, on some plane of existence, in someone's (perhaps our collective) consciousness, the Birdman learns to fly.