First appeared on Blogcritics.The film Birdman has the “feel” of heft to it – it seems as if you are expected to associate gravitas to the proceedings basically from the first few seconds. Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is a middle aged actor known for playing super hero Birdman in a blockbuster film and its sequels (the obvious reference to Keaton’s turns as Batman). Now he is having an existential crisis of the most extraordinary kind – Birdman is an alter ego who keeps whispering less than sweet nothings in his ear as he tries to survive the premier of a Broadway show with him as star to restart a fading career.
Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu keeps banging us over the head with behind the scenes wrangling in a New York City theater, where Thomson is staking his already floundering reputation on a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” There are moments of literal drum banging as Keaton navigates a sticky path of getting the play right before the curtain rises. Along the way his difficult relationship with his daughter, formerly drug addicted Sam (played as a sharp NYC cookie by Emma Stone), and other actors provide the conflicts that our hero must overcome in order to succeed, but his greatest problem is his inner conflict with the always hovering Birdman.
Iñárritu has established the setting and time and place well, and it doesn’t hurt that he has also stacked the deck with some really terrific supporting players – Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, Andrea Riseborough, and Zach Galifianakas and others help keep things going – but the wildcard is the addition of Edward Norton’s Mike to the cast of Thomson's play that throws him into a tailspin. He knows Mike is a fantastic actor but all his baggage (and relationship with Watts’ character Lesley) seem to threaten the future of the production.
Antonio Sanchez’s drum score is both jarring and compelling. It is sort of a thumping heart that Thomson refuses to acknowledge is beating out of control. Thomson can flash brilliance in a scene, but then fall apart in his dressing room. All the while the Birdman alter ego is just steps away, giving him either the best tips or the worst advice on how to ruin a career (and a show).
Norton has a history of being a difficult actor to work with, and Keaton has his skeletons with the Batman films, and there is a tongue-in-cheek sort of referencing to these real world tidbits that audiences are going to either love or hate. The problem here is that the script (written by Iñárritu and several others) drags the story along at times, and there is not enough of that explosive kind of scene when Norton’s character throws a glass and goes postal during a rehearsal when none of his fellow actors are prepared for it.
A play within a play motif is always difficult to pull off, and here it just seems more like a device to get us where we need (or ostensibly don’t need) to go. All of this is not just an attempt to capture the conscience of the king (in this case Keaton’s Thomson) but to sort of free him from his restrictions, allowing him to perhaps once again soar as Birdman – both literally and figuratively.
This is Keaton’s finest film performance (though my favorite remains Beetlejuice), and Norton and Stone are right behind him with complex, attention getting acting in key scenes. Together they should have knocked the ball out of the park, but I kind of feel that they only got a triple out of the whole deal. Credit or blame Iñárritu’s choppy hand-held cam style of directing that gets the feel of behind the scenes of NYC theater but never really captures its essence.
In my opinion something is missing here even though there is much to admire, but in the end Keaton and his co-stars’ performances are going to win the day. Don’t be surprised if Stone and Keaton take home Oscars (Norton should win but I feel it’s J.K. Simmons’ year for Whiplash). While I am sure that Iñárritu is seriously in the running for Best Director, as with Norton I think this someone else’s year – in this case Richard Linklater for Boyhood.
Go see Birdman if you want to see great acting and get a feel for what happens in NYC theater, but be warned that you may be checking your watch as I was doing throughout. That is not an indictment but more a reality check. During the much longer Boyhood I never looked at my watch even once. Maybe this says something about both films or probably it’s just more about my proclivities as a movie goer at this point in my life.
Photo credits: imbd.com, wired.com, screenrant.com, entertainmentmonthly.com