In the 1970s and early ’80s, Michael Keaton worked his way up the showbiz ladder, paying his dues in such now-forgotten television shows as Working Stiffs and Report to Murphy before soaring into the stratosphere with films like Mr. Mom, Night Shift and especially Beetlejuice. But when he put on the cowl to play Batman, his career — for better or worse — was never the same.
Now, playing Riggan Thomson in Alejandro Inarritu’s brilliant new comedy/drama, Keaton takes on a role that very nearly mirrors his own life — and he runs with it. Riggan is a film star who lost momentum after playing superhero Birdman in a series of blockbusters back in the ’90s, and is now trying to gain recognition as a serious actor by staging an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story on Broadway. He’s put everything he has into it, serving as writer, producer, director and star.
When his terrible male lead (Jeremy Shamos) exits the production after being brained by a falling arc light, co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts), offers to bring in her man, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a hotshot Broadway actor, as a replacement. Riggan is thrilled at first, but is soon plagued by feelings of inadequacy when faced with a legitimate stage professional. Worse still, he feels that the more experienced actor is attempting to steal the show away. And when Mike is gushingly profiled on page one of the New York Times arts section, his suspicions are seemingly confirmed.
Fueling his paranoia is the voice of his alter ego, Birdman, constantly ringing in his head. He tells Riggin that he’s better than all of this, urging him to just run way from it all and go back to Hollywood. As opening day draws near and they run through a series of disastrous previews, Riggan begins second-guesses everything and gives in to bouts of fury, even as his producer (Zach Galifianakis) assures him that the show is getting good buzz.
He’s also afflicted by hallucinations that make it difficult to comprehend the real world. He’s out of synch with his fresh-out-of-rehab daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), who is serving as his assistant, and it barely registers when Laura (Andrea Riseborough), his femme lead and offstage lover, tells him that she may be pregnant with his child. Thankfully, as Birdman takes pains to remind him, he has telekinetic powers and the ability to fly…or does he?
In a film populated by fine performances, Keaton shines, providing layered and sympathetic work. He’s still manic, but the years have softened his edginess — perfect for this role. He’s nearly matched by Norton, whose arrogant Mike embodies Broadway’s sense of “superiority” to film as the only true art form. Stone, Watts and Riseborough are all given their memorable moments, and Galifianakis plays against type as the voice of reason. Amy Ryan is also wonderful as Riggan’s ex-wife, Sylvia, who clearly still adores him and mourns the death of their marriage.
The sharp screenplay by Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo, pits not only the stage against film but also old versus new. Indeed, Riggan behaves as if his life stalled out along with his career back in the ’90s. His refusal to participate in social media as a way of marketing himself to the new generation while hungering for legitimacy in the ancient world of the theater is a useless pursuit that his daughter Sam decries in an explosive rant (wonderfully delivered by the doe-eyed Stone).
Birdman is certainly the lightest film the gritty Inarritu has made to date, and yet it’s also his most satisfying. Working with Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski (Gravity) and editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrone, he makes the film flow as if it’s been shot in one continuous take. Lubeski’s camera constantly roves around the actors and slithers through the corridors of the St. James Theatre, where much of the action takes place. Adding to this sensation of nonstop movement is the unusual but effective all-percussion score provided by jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez.
The much-discussed fantasy sequences are well-integrated and even essential to the story. Who among us has never imagined, when things got really tough, that we could vanquish our enemies with a snap of our fingers or suddenly soar high into the air, leaving our problems far below us? That’s the universal message of Birdman, one of the year’s best and a sure contender come Oscar time.
Reviewed by Kurt Gardner.