I had expected Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman to be a little on the nose as far as following the career of Michael Keaton. I was pleasantly surprised to find out this was not the case. Keaton has continued to act and be successful since his Batman of 1989, and remains a respected and relevant actor even if not as active as he once was. Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, once famous for his roles in Birdman I, II & III (presumably things went down hill for Riggan when he refused to cash in on the opportunity to do Birdman IV — analogue to the Batman franchise and the Schumacher bombasts to follow the gritty Tim Burton Dark Knight interpretation). Riggan finds himself struggling to stay in the spotlight on Broadway, producing, directing and starring in his own play “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by Raymond Carver.
Another superhero movie actor, (arguably three, all told) stars in the film, Edward Norton. Norton’s own relationship with his Marvel superhero, The Incredible Hulk (2008) is complex as he was replaced unceremoniously by Mark Ruffalo in The Avengers (2012). Norton’s arrogance off screen is perhaps a reason he was replaced, and here in Birdman he plays a well known stage actor Mike Shiner, struggling to inject realism on the stage playing opposite his girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts). Shiner drinks real gin on stage, throws tantrums and is just a real dick to everyone. Perhaps it is because he can’t get it up!
Zach Galifianakis plays Riggan’s agent and a straight man this time around. As comic artist Ray Hueston in HBO’s Bored to Death, he played the alter ego of Super Ray — a hero that can fight with his enlarged penis!
Emma Stone plays Riggan and Sylvia’s (the charming Amy Ryan) daughter, fresh from rehab. Of course, Stone is well known for her role as Gwen Stacy in the latest Amazing Spider-Man series from Sony (not Marvel). Stone’s broken and aloof Sam works as Riggan’s daughter come-production assistant, trying desperately to care about her dad’s attempt to reinvent himself. Post rehab, She distracts herself by getting high on pot, making hashmarks on toilet paper and dangling off of the roof for an adrenaline rush.
Birdman is shot in what seems to be a perpetual single shot, a stylistic choice that at once keeps the film moving along and also apes how scenes change on the set of a play. Keaton’s Birdman alter ego — by way of a voice in his head — is convincing the actor that he has it all wrong and that he is too good to be here on Broadway. Meanwhile, Riggan wrecks his dressing room with telekinetic powers as he is being called to the stage for his first rehearsal.
From there we have the setup to this hyperaware cynical parody of not only superhero movies but of Hollywood and Show Biz itself. From Times Square cosplay performers of Spider-Man, Iron Man and Bumblebee of the Transformers showing up in the background to Riggan being beat out of magazine cover shoots by none other than fellow Batman George Clooney, we see production of the play unfold. From jittery preview performances to opening night, Riggan struggles to keep it together, keep the Birdman silent and the rage in check.
Riggan’s former fame haunts him as he struggles with the relationships in his life from his ex-wife and daughter to the hulking presence of Norton’s Mike Shiner onstage and backstage. The in-shape Keaton battles with self-esteem, even to his physical appearance “I look like a turkey with leukemia”, he yells back at Birdman. He even plays up the “I’m old I don’t get social media” trope, popular these days, as his daughter explains to him that is how he’ll stay in the public eye after he embarrassingly finds a YouTube of himself in his tighty whiteys in Times Square. This is akin to the use of Twitter in this year’s Chef — written and directed by Iron Man director Jon Favreau.
Birdman accomplishes a lot in symbolism and satire for the art house film crowd and also satisfies the comic book movie nerd fan all at the same time. The performances are amazing, starting with Keaton and working your way down the playbill, everyone in the movie is outstanding. The one-camera trick doesn’t get tiresome, and there is even some full on fantasy battles with Keaton back in the suit once more. No, not the Batsuit, the Birdman.