Movie Review: Birdman
By Matthew Huntley
October 29, 2014
There is a scene late in Batman Returns, which was Michael Keaton’s last superhero film, when Batman glides over Gotham City. Director Tim Burton employed a God’s eye view as the Caped Crusader rises from the bottom of the frame and crosses over the top in perfect form. Alejandro González Iñárritu presents a similar shot in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) when Keaton, playing a has-been Hollywood actor whose claim to fame was a superhero not unlike Batman, imagines himself flying over New York City.
It’s safe to assume the similarity between Burton’s shot and Iñárritu’s is no coincidence. Keaton was cast in the lead role of Birdman for a reason, not least because his post-Batman career may partly mirror that of the character he plays.
But the idea that the two have anything in common fortunately only adds to the appeal of Iñárritu’s film; it doesn’t determine it. Birdman would be just as sad, humorous and lively without the audience knowing Keaton once played a superhero himself. His character and performance, and the film as a whole, are engaging regardless.
Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, who identifies himself as an actor but whom critics label a celebrity. Riggan once played the title character in a superhero franchise called Birdman, which was a huge hit, but now, years later, he finds himself struggling to do something (and be someone) that matters. He explains this is why he turned down Birdman 4.
To reinvigorate his career, Riggan is funding, directing and starring in a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love on Broadway. Birdman functions not only as a character study of Riggan, who’s desperate to reassemble the shattered pieces of his current life, but as an ensemble and often zany comedy about a play that seems destined to fail.
Neither one of these premises is particularly groundbreaking. There have already been movies about once-famous Hollywood actors who now feel they’ve drifted into obscurity (Sunset Boulevard, Somewhere), and about the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of a tumultuous stage production (Topsy-Turvy, Shakespeare in Love). These recycled setups are perhaps what hold Birdman back from total greatness, but together they still make for an engrossing and thoroughly enjoyable experience.
Much of this is owed to Iñárritu’s technique of making it seem like the entire film was shot in one take, which raises the energy and tension levels and we get the sense something or someone is always about to burst. Whether or not something actually does, I’ll let you discover, but this approach keeps us on edge and we instantly get caught up in the characters and their absurd situations.
And speaking of the characters, they are inhabited by a team of enthusiastic actors who seemed to know they were making something special. They include Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s producer and best friend who will tell the star just about anything to ensure the show goes on and they recoup at least some of their investment; Edward Norton as a talented but egotistical thespian who thinks he can come along and steal the spotlight, not to mention Riggan’s daughter/assistant, who’s just completed a stint in rehab. She’s played by Emma Stone and it’s clear the source of her emotional problems goes beyond drugs. There’s also Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts as the two actresses in Riggan’s play, whose collective frustration and lack of faith in Riggan, or men in general, leads them to explore alternative options.
The camera playfully follows each of these pieces of work into every nook and cranny of the theater as the cast and crew prepare for the play’s upcoming previews. All the while, we wonder whether an uptight theater critic’s (Lindsey Duncan) preemptive scathing review will cause the show to sink or swim. Or perhaps fly is the better word, since Riggan seems to possess the same powers as Birdman, who, oddly enough, speaks in the same low, bass tone as Batman and constantly eggs Riggan on. The movie wisely never substantiates Riggan’s potential schizophrenia or his superhuman abilities like levitations and telekinesis.
Overall, Birdman may not surprise us with its narrative trajectory, but that hardly makes it any less of a pleasure. On the surface, it’s rhythmic and infectiously funny, and on a deeper level, we really come to care about Riggan, and not just because he’s pathetic, but also because we see he genuinely wants to do right for his daughter, the other players, and himself. We’re naturally inclined to root for him and although this may be a familiar story of redemption, it’s still a moving one.
It does help that Keaton once played Batman, but I think he’d be just as effective in this role even if he hadn’t. He shares a scene late in the film with Amy Ryan, who plays Riggan’s ex-wife, that’s so strong and nuanced, it reminds us of Keaton’s range as an actor. If he receives an Oscar nomination, this scene will be why he wins.
I’m honestly surprised it took Hollywood this long to make a modern film that centers on a washed-up actor known for playing a superhero. Birdman is well aware of the current times and the prolificacy of the superhero genre, going so far as to make snide comments about Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man. It knows that actors who play such larger-than-life figures are often doomed to be typecast and thought of as nothing else. Birdman runs with this notion and makes it both fun and dramatic, reminding us that humans are indeed mutable creatures, capable of reinventing and redefining ourselves. This is not a novel message, and it’s one Hollywood delivers more often than not, but it still helps to hear it.