BIRDMAN: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianikis, Emma Stone, directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñàrritu (110 min.)
Birdman is Michael Keaton at his absolute best, but it is nothing unexpected. I am not alone in this Michael Keaton fan club, a group of cinephiles and movie folks who have always respected Keaton’s acting abilities in spite of his poor film choices. Keaton has been the BMW engine in the body of a Pinto too many times in his acting career, making poor film choices to the point of growing obscure when he should be one of the more celebrated actors of his generation. But that is neither here nor there, because now Keaton has gotten a film to sink his teeth into, a showcase of his manic energy and passionate acting. Birdman is a triumph for Keaton, and a fascinating film to boot.
Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a washed-up former superstar who made millions and spent millions playing Birdman, a Batman-esque superhero (life imitating art to an extent, though I don't believe Keaton is quite the mess Thompson is in his personal life). Now, working for ultimate respect as an actor, Thomson has taken on producing, directing, and starring in a Broadway stage production of a play called What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The production is a passion project for Thomson, but it has clearly transformed into an ego-driven albatross pushing him to the breaking point. All the while, Thomson is haunted by his superhero past, even fighting to block out the voice of Birdman who serves as the devil on his shoulder, constantly telling him this endeavor is a waste of time and Birdman 4 is the way to go.
The stage play feels doomed in every scene as the film uses some crafty camera tricks to make it feel like one continuous shot over a few days. Thomson’s lead actor is awful, his former drug-addicted daughter, Sam, played by Emma Stone, floats behind the stage as a source of constant angst for him, and the whole production is steadily running out of money and heading for disaster on opening night. Then, a freak accident – one of the many semi-supernatural occurrances in the film – sends his lead actor to the hospital.
Birdman is also written by Iñàrritu, among others, and the humor is razor sharp and crafted perfectly for Keaton’s strengths. The magic realism throughout is a charming addition to the film, and it fits the way the picture unravels into insanity. At times, Thomson flies into a rage in his room and seems to be using telepathic powers to throw things from one side to another. In an amusing later scene, we find out what is really happening. And as if the doomed production isn’t enough, Thomson seems to have no chance to win over the most important stage critic in Manhattan, who sees him as a joke and plans on destroying his play before seeing a single moment.
Alejandro Gonzalez Iñàrritu steps out of his comfort zone with Birdman. His career has consisted of heavy dramas like Amores Perros, Babel, and 21 Grams. He handles the humor and wit very well, and the gravity in his previous works feels effective in keeping the story serious enough to care about these characters. I felt myself rooting for Thompson and his production, even as it looks like a lost cause and Thompson finally reaches his breaking point and suffers a nervous breakdown hours before opening night.
Birdman is a wonderfully entertaining film, and it should earn Michael Keaton his first Oscar nomination. As Thomson, Keaton bounces maniacally from excitement to rage to desperation to resignation from scene to scene. Having seen the other frontrunners for the award this year, I would have to say Keaton deserves the win, which should make his cult following feel vindicated, and make Keaton gain the respect Riggan Thomson is so desperately searching for on Broadway.