If Eminem played a version of himself in 8 Mile, Michael Keaton plays the version of himself he thought he was going to become in Birdman. For decades fans everywhere looked at him and saw the face of Batman; for many of them he was Batman. What a curse it must have been — to be caught in the memory of a role. I think of Adam West, who wore Batman around his neck for so long that even in his old age had to voice a superhero in the Spongebob Squarepants cartoons. There was no escape, the poor soul.
In Birdman Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, who 20 years ago starred as a magnificent superhero in his own brand of movies and is now milking what’s left of his legacy. He’s old, flabby, forgotten. Heck, he doesn’t even have a Facebook page. What will he retains he pours sourly into his passion project, a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story that’s set to premiere at a historic Broadway theatre (“Isn’t it intimidating to think Marlon Brando once walked on this stage?”).
What the play is about we never really learn, unless you’ve read the Carver story. We only ever see two scenes being enacted, neither encourage me to pick Carver’s book up and flip it open.
Riggan’s written the adaptation. He’s also chosen to star and direct. Entrusted to him is his cast, of which the newest member is Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a slithering womaniser who vows that whenever he’s on stage, he’s the real deal, and whenever he’s off, he’s someone else. This he illustrates by avoiding sex off stage like the plague because he’s not sure if he can “get it up”, and producing on stage a bulge in his underwear so formidable the crowd spots it immediately and laughs to hide its sexual embarrassment.
Mike’s a good actor. He tricks us into believing he can effectively conjure lines of dialogue just by having one fed to him. In a showcase of brilliant smugness, he encourages Riggan to rile him up during a rehearsal and displays such authority as to come off looking like the director instead. Riggan, coiled up inside the faded memory of himself, allows Mike to stomp unrestrained like Godzilla through the streets of his beloved play.
Two co-stars join the fray. Lesley (Naomi Watts) is Mike’s former lover, pushes for him to be cast and is utterly appalled when he attempts to fornicate with her under the sheets… in front of the audience. Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is Riggan’s mistress, now that his marriage has ended and his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), just out of rehab, is drifting through his life like a thief in the night. Laura says she might be pregnant. Riggan is thinking about ways of controlling Mike. You see where their relationship can possibly go.
All these lives are intertwined in the movie through director Alejandro Iñárritu’s use of long takes, joined together by hidden cuts and computer effects (days move over in sped-up static shots of the sky). Hitchcock employed the same technique in his filming of Rope (1948), which only had the visage of being shot continuously (because it was shot on film, and each reel could hold maybe 20 minutes of footage, Hitch would have the camera pass behind the back of a chair to hide a cut).
Now everything’s shot in digital. There are no more reels. No more technical hindrances. Iñárritu instead has to mask his cuts because his camera movements by Emmanuel Lubezki are too complicated to be achieved in real-time continuous takes. But the effect remains; we get the feeling of gliding through the bowels of this theatre along with these trapped characters, who hate to be around each other but are bound by their duties as professionals to see the play through.
Birdman behaves like Russian Ark (2002, actually filmed in one unbroken take) but unfolds more like a superhero alter ego tragedy on hallucinogens. Riggan is determined to succeed with this play. His life will otherwise be for naught. There is a voice we hear, not his own, hovering around him like a disease. It’s the voice of Birdman (also Keaton), poking him from the past with mischief, nudging him ever closer to madness. Is it his conscience, or is Riggan going insane? And what’s with his supernatural powers? Are they real? Does he only imagine hurling a vase across the room with his mind, or can he actually do it? Iñárritu never stops to explain. His movie hurtles forward like Lubezki’s camera, unceasingly. All around hints are dropped, wrapped in thick pop culture dialogue. I feel it’s not really insanity that drives Riggan, but a deep implacable desire to make something good of his life. He believes this godforsaken play, wrought from Carver’s remains, will do that for him, if only everyone else would step up and be a team player.
I did not penetrate this movie, or rather this movie did not penetrate me. Keaton delivers an inspired performance and no doubt endorses many critics’ sentiments that he has produced the comeback of the century (hyperbole, sure, but not misguided). I sat detached, however, and simply regarded the images and the camerawork and the performances and the threadbare storytelling and the clunky dialogue, all of which are successes on basic levels (Am I missing something here?). Riggan’s ethereal “other voice” and his superpowers felt more like distractions and add-ons. Iñárritu seems to have dug deep into Riggan’s soul, but somewhere, maybe in the translation, he closed the doors on me and threw away the key.
Best Moment | Riggan locking himself outside the theatre in nothing but his granddad’s underwear and returning to the play in a fashion that many would consider to be avant-garde.
Worst Moment | The befuddling, somewhat cheesy closing shot.