“Birdman” is a carefully considered kick in the pants. Visually urgent, inflected by humor and enriched by savvy performances, the film succeeds on a surface storytelling level and as a deeper exploration of culture – high, low and whatever sub-floor Twitter fame occupies.
Director and co-screenwriter Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s previous films ranged from dark and brilliant (“Amores Perros”) to dark and pretentious (“Babel”). Here, he scales back from the mosaiclike, multisetting approach of those films, to invigorating effect.
“Birdman” takes place almost entirely in a Broadway theater (the film was shot partly at a real venue, the St. James) where Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), an actor who played a big-screen superhero, is directing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
Iñárritu’s visual approach splits the difference between Carver’s domestic drama and big-budget superhero movies. “Birdman” is static in setting but active in execution, with Iñárritu and Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity”) using tracking shots and long, continuous takes. As the camera follows characters through the theater, the darkness of the wings becomes the brightness of the stage, without cuts or other visual interruptions.
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The camera work is alive, baby, and would be even without Antonio Sanchez’s jazzy drum score. But the visuals and Sanchez’s drums are irresistible in their combined immediacy.
Riggan wants the play to help him regain the fame he found as the winged movie superhero Birdman, before he quit the franchise and became the has-been who used to be Birdman. That this character evokes Keaton, the actor who walked away from a third “Batman” film in the 1990s and has not been as famous since, accounts for 5 percent of “Birdman’s” fun. The further conceits of casting Emma Stone (“The Amazing Spider-Man”), as Riggan’s daughter, and Edward Norton (pre-“Avengers” Hulk), as an actor in Riggan’s play, add 5 more percent.
These “meta” aspects of the film never land with the same force as its pop-cultural timeliness.
Though Riggan removed the Birdman suit years ago, it hovers. The role paid for his Malibu house and inspired foreign fanboy journalists unaware of Carver to interview Riggan about his new project, anyway.
Comics films also are the current biggest thing in entertainment. “Birdman” questions how such a thing can be true. Riggan is frustrated that franchise films, in their ubiquity, have hogged all the actors he would want to be in his play. Co-star Mike (Norton), a Broadway critical darling, views comics movies and acting as mutually exclusive.
Riggan and Mike will prove, through egomania, to be unreliable cultural arbiters. But Iñárritu’s implications still hold weight. Think about it: Does “Guardians of the Galaxy” deserve to be the year’s box office winner? Sure, it freshens the genre as “alternative” Marvel. But why is the scale now all Marvel?
Riggan’s celebrity serves as entry point for Iñárritu’s main theme: the inherent desire within all of us to be recognized. As “Birdman” explores this theme, the masterful Keaton subsumes some of his own ego, delivering an unshowy performance as fluid as the film’s camera work and as multifaceted as our collective obsession with fame.
Keaton plays Riggan as a kind of everyman egotist whose vanity is not apparent to the naked eye. Riggan does not hide the lines on his face. He also seems receptive to creative input.
When he goes over lines with Mike at rehearsal, he appears energized, giving as much as he gets. But a glint in Keaton’s eye tells us Riggan’s happiness does not rest in the moment. He foresees successful interactions on stage, and subsequent good notices for his own vanity project.
Riggan battles nagging doubts that take the form of a disembodied voice that sounds like a deeper version of his own. Riggan carries a figurative Birdman on his shoulder. The fictional superhero urges the actor to forget the arty stuff and head back to Hollywood, where they had it all.
Birdman’s sentiments show on Keaton’s face even when the feathered alter ego is silent. Riggan’s artistic commitment frays when the play’s flawed previews become more focused on men’s underwear than Carver ever intended.
Riggan doesn’t want the show to go on if the show is a bomb and ruins his comeback. But although he’s no trouper, he is not irredeemable. He has given his just-out-of-rehab daughter, Sam (Stone), a job as his personal assistant to keep her away from trouble.
Mike is irredeemable, or at least incorrigible, and usually part of what goes haywire in the play-within-the-movie scenes that provide much of the film’s dramatic tension and funnier moments. One scene plays on Norton’s own Method reputation, by having Mike drink real booze on stage.
Norton gives Mike flickers of self-awareness and self-loathing. These qualities do not keep him from barreling forward anyway, leaving a trail of personal and professional destruction in the name of staying true to his craft. But Mike at least gets the concept of integrity. Other “Birdman” characters discard any pretense of it as easily as a theatergoer does a playbill from a flop jukebox musical.
The play’s leading lady (Naomi Watts, who shows a comic pragmatism here and in her other current film, “St. Vincent,” that’s a welcome addition to an already fine skill set) knows that Mike, her boyfriend, will cause trouble for the production. But she wants to ensure her first Broadway play makes it to opening night, so she recommends him to Riggan anyway, after an actor exits during previews.
As Riggan’s longtime pal and the play’s producer, Zach Galifianakis is polished and professional, and carries just enough hints of venality to suggest this guy would be the first on board were Riggan to decide to don Birdman feathers again. The producer likes Riggan, but he likes being attached to success even more.
Stone makes a good junior burnout, and shows that Sam’s desire for recognition is purer than the other characters’. She wants it from her dad, because he neglected her in the past.
Sam does not seem vital to the story beyond representing her age group by urging her dad to join social media. Her dad, out of ignorance, resists this easy attention source until a viral video forces the matter.
“Birdman” does not present Riggan as apart from the rest of us in his need to be admired. He operates from the same instinct that has people checking “likes” on Facebook photos.
Measuring one’s popularity is so easy now. But do “likes” feed the soul? Iñárritu never answers this question directly. But he answers it by example, through a film that is entertaining and fun, yet also substantial.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.
Cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Rated R (language, sexual content, brief violence)