Michael Keaton makes a spectacular leading man comeback in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s major change of pace from fractured chronology and introspective misery to faux-classical unities and backstage shenanigans.
Riggan Thomson (Keaton) was Birdman. In his own mind he still is. The film starts with him levitating in his dressing room while a growling voice in his head argues with him. But Birdman III was released in 1992. The aged Thomson is trying to salvage some respectability by staging his adaptation of Raymond Carver’s ‘What we talk about when we talk about love’ on Broadway. A happy accident sees his leading lady Lesley (Naomi Watts) introduce her boyfriend Mike (Edward Norton) to the cast; and ticket sales take off – to the joy of Thomson’s attorney/producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis). All Riggan has to do is keep his drug-addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone) on the straight and narrow as his PA, negotiate the hurdle of an unexpected pregnancy with girlfriend and co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough), raise extra money to pay for the star attraction that is Broadway legend Mike, oh, and try not to murder Broadway legend Mike…
It’s not often a movie gets released on New Year’s Day that looks to be the best movie of that year, but Birdman is a good bet to pull off that feat. There is a lot to talk about with Birdman that’s unusual: whether it be Antonio Sanchez’s exclusively percussion score that quickly becomes adorable and only yields to strings when Keaton becomes Birdman, or Inarritu’s conceit of filming the movie as one single long-take that collapses time at certain points in order to trace some crucial days leading up to opening night of Riggan’s play. Emmanuel Lubezski’s camera-work is spectacularly fluid in maintaining the illusion but the time-lapses make you wonder why doing one long-take made more sense than simply four long-takes. I have a sneaking suspicion that the need to show off so spectacularly in cinematic terms is because it hides the theatrical concerns of the script.
Inarritu and his co-writers Armando Bo, Alexander Dinelaris, and Nicolas Giacabone have constructed a back-stage tale that mixes comedy and drama with aplomb. Keaton and Norton are transparently playing with their own personae, and having the time of their life doing it, but the hilarity of Mike’s preening self-regard and Riggan’s crises of confidence are balanced by their arguments over the nature of what they do. Lindsay Duncan’s ridiculous critic Tabitha wants to take Riggan down to score off Hollywood fakes who can’t act and aren’t interested in learning the technique needed to triumph on Broadway. And yet, for all Riggan’s critique of her reviews as being lacking in any dissection of technique, Riggan himself shares many of her concerns that cinema has left him behind because he is interested in exploring truth and the human condition. He fears maybe Mike is right that such concerns now only exist in the theatre, and only if someone like Mike is there to attract crowds and provide protection against poison-pen reviews.
Birdman is interesting, funny, and experimental; and to consistently pull off all three of those at the same time is enough to overcome any quibbles.