Vivid, flashy meditation on fame has Michael Keaton as a washed up actor named Riggan Thomson, once known for playing a superhero character named Birdman in the movies – three times in fact. Now he is desperately wanting to re-invigorate his career with the mounting of a Broadway play. He is both directing and starring in an adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The parallels between Keaton’s real-life celebrity as Batman and Riggan’s role as Birdman are just as overt as Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Keaton is perfect in the part because he IS this guy. And the opportunity to send-up his own reputation allows the actor to give the finest performance he’s possibly ever given, or at least since Beetlejuice. The production is a dizzying look into the backstage shenanigans of the theater, from rehearsals, to previews, to opening night. Truly Birdman is the best film “All About” Broadway since that movie with Bette Davis.
Riggan is supported by a coterie of oddball characters. On the day before previews, the co-lead is injured and he must quickly scramble for a replacement. Riggan’s slightly off-kilter female lead Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggests her boyfriend, theater critics’ darling Mike Shiner (Ed Norton). He turns out to be a completely bonkers method actor that has an ego unchecked by his unrelenting bravado. It’s a masterful performance – one that cleverly draws on the star’s own notoriety gained after starring in The Incredible Hulk in 2008. Idiosyncratic actress (and Riggan’s girlfriend) Laura also stars in his play. She is portrayed by Andrea Riseborough. Emma Stone is Riggan’s recovering drug addict daughter who now works as his assistant. Then there’s Riggan’s best friend and theatrical producer Jake. When Zach Galifianakis embodies the most sane person in the ensemble, you know you’re surrounded by a zany lot indeed.
What really sets director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s tour de force apart is the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki. The film is shot, or made to appear like it was shot, in one single long take with no edits over the course of a few days. The result is a you-are-there heightened sense of realism. The proceedings have an immediacy that is exhilarating. Iñárritu directs his cast like a symphonic piece, each one carefully entering and exiting the scene at various parts of the 119 minute movement. It’s similar to a musician awaiting their cue in an orchestra. The locale is almost exclusively set inside the St. James theater in New York City. The lens navigates the cramped cavernous halls of the Broadway institution. The camera swoops and turns, doubles back and around through the stage show separately focusing on assorted conversations at different times throughout the venue. The display occasionally induces claustrophobia in the observer but the effect can be breathtaking as well. It’s a spectacular feat that could have become a gimmick, but the manipulation here is so effortless that it is a welcome and, dare I say, vital component of the production. The achievement makes this Iñárritu’s most accessible work since Babel.
Birdman is a densely layered comedy that is open to numerous interpretations. It’s a dissertation on acting vs. celebrity. It’s a rumination on show business and the fleeting nature of fame. And it’s a satire on the acting profession. Regarding that last one, this is a pretty savage portrait on the existence of an actor. There is an element of fantasy to this too. Michael Keaton as Riggan has a constant interior monologue in the guise of his alter ego Birdman. These Shakespearean soliloquies add to the experimental feel of the spectacle. The drama opens with him meditating, seated in the lotus position, floating in midair. Later he’s moving objects with his mind. The drum heavy score by jazz artist Antonio Sanchez, accentuates many scenes with a thudding percussion beat. The stylish flourishes are to subvert reality. It adds to the manic tension that continues all the way to the ending. It’s one of those head scratchers that leaves the audience with a big question instead of closure. That’s ok because with Birdman it’s about the journey. The chronicle takes the viewer on a wildly inventive and smartly written ride. Hold on tight because once it starts, it doesn’t stop.