As a quirky backstage comedy of existential crisis, “Birdman” flies with style while also being grounded in substance. Presenting its interesting story of life and performance in a technically challenging way we have never encountered before, it attempts a risky visual/narrative stunt to intrigue and engage us, and the result is a rich, memorable work which freely moves around laughs and pathos as gradually focusing on its hero’s desperate reach for recognition and redemption.
When we see Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) alone in his dressing room, it is apparent that his rather unstable mind is on the thin line between reality and illusion. He is trying to calm his mind through meditation, but the camera shows him being floated above the floor, and then we hear a deep ominous voice whispering to Riggan as if it were his hidden superego.
Riggan knows it is the voice of Birdman, a comic book superhero he once played in several films. That character gave him lots of fame and money during the prime of his Hollywood career, but that was a long time ago, and this washed-up actor has struggled in his sinking acting career since he left the franchise in 1992. If you are familiar with Keaton’s real-life acting career, you will be surely amused by the fact that Keaton also became more famous through “Batman” (1989) and then left the series after “Batman Returns” (1992), though he has steadily worked for years in contrast to his character (according to Keaton himself, Riggan is a character who is the most dissimilar to him in his entire career).
While people on the streets still recognize him as the star of the Birdman series, Riggan wants to be recognized as a serious artist, and that is why he is trying to make a Broadway debut through his stage play “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, which is based on Raymond Carver’s short story with the same name. With the help of his friend/lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), he puts a lot of money and efforts to this personal project as its director/writer/lead actor, and he hopes his play will be critically and commercially successful enough to re-energize his acting career.
But, as we saw from many other backstage comedy films, things are not going well at present. Although he and others are almost ready for the upcoming previews at the St. James Theater (I and my brother went there once for watching the musical “The Producers” starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick), Riggan is still not so sure about whether he can pull it off or not, and then he gets a major headache when one of his cast members is replaced by Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a famous Broadway actor who has some reputation for being both talented and difficult. While Riggan was initially glad to see a lesser actor being replaced by Mike, he soon sees the dreadful possibility of being upstaged by Mike inside and outside the theater, and Lesely (Naomi Watts), Mike’s current girlfriend who is also one of the cast members in the play, also gets her share of problems as Mike becomes too serious about his performance on the stage. In addition, the theater critics of Broadway are ready to blast any flaw in Riggan’s play, and Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), one of the leading critics in the town, does not hesitate to show her harsh contempt toward Riggan during their encounter at a nearby bar.
And Riggan’s personal life is not in a good situation either although it is not exactly at the bottom at least. His daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who works as her father’s personal assistant, has recently gone through a rehabilitation period, but she is not fully recovered from her drug problem while her current relationship with Riggan is strained as usual. She is not oblivious to how pathetic her father looks in his attempt to revive his career, and neither is Sylvia (Amy Ryan), Riggan’s no-nonsense ex-wife who understands her ex-husband better than anyone.
The screenplay by the director Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo gives us playful or serious moments generated from the various interactions between its characters, and it also makes a satiric fun of various things including the ongoing trend of Hollywood blockbusters and the celebrity status fueled by the Internet. When the characters in the film mention several real-life actors currently playing comic book characters, we cannot help but be tickled by the fact that Keaton, Norton, and Stone had previous experiences with comic book blockbuster films, and then we get a very hilarious situation in which Riggan happens to be locked out of the theater while also being nearly naked. He has no choice but to do something for going back inside the theater because he must return to the stage right now, and that embarrassing moment goes viral on the Internet later thanks to many cellular phones on the scene.
Through the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s stunningly fluid camerawork, all these happenings and many other ones in the film except the prologue and epilogue scenes are virtually presented as one very long visual flow without any visible cut to interrupt it. Lubezki’s astounding technical achievement in the film, which will certainly get an Oscar nomination, is simply marvelous to watch; his handheld camera moves freely here and there not only around every corner and corridor of the St. James Theater but also around the streets of New York, and you may be more surprised to see how this approach seldom draws attentions to itself as effortlessly moving from one scene to another (I was caught off guard several times during my viewing). You may notice some of its subtle transition jobs between scenes at times, but Lubezki’s camera keeps surprising us as effectively serving the story as an immersive tool of storytelling, and there are a number of terrific visual moments to be admired for how Iñárritu, Lubezki, and other crew members of the film rose to the challenges and then superbly succeeded with great dramatic effects.
The actors, who had to handle lots of dialogues while following carefully choreographed movements in front of the camera during their many longtake scenes, look as spontaneous as demanded on the screen, and some of them add humorous touches to their fun performances as skewing their public images. Like his character, Edward Norton has been known to be difficult to work with due to his professional dedication, and he willingly makes a fun of his image as an unorthodox method actor who is dedicated to his craft a little too much. He has a particularly absurd scene when Mike tries to act more realistically with Lesley right in front of the audiences, and you may be further amused by the fact that Norton previously played with Watts as a couple in “The Painted Veil” (2006).
As a frustrated actress wishing for more respect and recognition, Naomi Watts sometimes reflects her own early struggling years in real-life (do you remember the time when this Australian actress was once regarded as a less fortunate version of her friend Nicole Kidman?), and she also has a humorously tantalizing scene with Andrea Riseborough (she plays Riggan’s actress girlfriend who is also another cast member in the play). Emma Stone, who shows quite a different side of her talent here in this film, has her own moment when Sam tells a harsh truth to her father at one point, and she plays well with Norton as their characters toy with the mutual feelings between them on the rooftop of the St. James Theater. Amy Ryan and Lindsay Duncan are also good in their small but crucial roles, and Zach Galifianakis looks surprisingly down-to-earth as one of more normal characters in the film.
And Michael Keaton, who will soon be Oscar-nominated along with Norton and Stone as predicted, slowly takes the center as the hero of the film. Besides that he is perfectly fit into his character, Keaton embodies his character right from the beginning, and we come to understand more of Riggan’s love/hate relationship with Birdman through Keaton’s unpretentious depiction of his character’s growing insecurity and conflict along the story. Riggan hates this symbol of his former fame as trying to make the new start as a serious actor, but then he sees more illusions of superpower as facing both his old desire to be famous again and his gnawing fear of another career failure which can be his doom, and Keaton’s performance firmly holds the ground during the final act as his character becomes more insecure – and more delusional.
Alejandro González Iñárritu has mainly been known through his sad, daunting films such as “Amores perros” (2000), “21 Grams” (2003) “Babel” (2006), and “Biutiful” (2010), and “Birdman” is a refreshing change of pace. While it has a fair share of deep sadness coming from its hero’s desperation, it also finds humor as honestly observing how silly and pathetic he really is, and it somehow finds a way to dance dazzlingly between reverent drama and irreverent comedy as accompanied with Antonio Sánchez’s percussive score.
The subtitle of the movie is “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”, and this baffling subtitle is aptly used during the epilogue scene which ends with an ambiguous note. I do not know how to interpret its last shot, but “Birdman” is a very satisfying experience packed with style and substance, and Michael Keaton gives a performance to be remembered as one of the best moments in his career.