Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, & Armando Bo
Starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, & Amy Ryan
NOW PLAYING in NYC & Select Theaters
A has-been actor tries to reestablish relevance: It doesn’t sound like the freshest of premises. ‘Sunset Boulevard’s’ Norma Desmond prepped for her close-up back in 1950. But it’s clear from the opening image of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ‘Birdman’—the film’s main character in a Broadway dressing room, hovering mid-air in a seated Zen pose, a gravelly disembodied voice grumbling that the room “smells like balls”—that “Birdman” is something new. With its frenetic cinematography, its pounding, percussive score, its unhinged performances, and its schizophrenic blurring of fantasy and reality, “Birdman” pecks convention’s eyes out: It’s innovative, jarring, and gloriously insane.
“Birdman” centers on Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson, a middle-aged former movie star best known as the titular superhero in the fictional early ‘90s “Birdman” franchise. (Keaton, you may recall, did something similar. As many have noted, the casting seems appropriate.) Riggan, broke and divorced, is now in the final preview stages of a comeback project: A self-written, -starring, and -directed stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.’ Carver’s short story, a gin-soaked dialogue on love, obsession, and abuse, practically screams artistic integrity. As a journalist tells Riggan, it’s easy to view the play as an effort “to battle the impression that you’re a washed-up comic strip character.” Riggan weakly defends his artistic bonafides, pointing out that he passed on “Birdman 4.”
Riggan is at best a sideshow attraction, and at worst a joke. Gawkers rush him on the street for pictures and autographs, never taking no for an answer. That’s more love than he gets from Sam, his fresh-out-of-rehab daughter (Emma Stone). “You’re not important, get used it,” she snarls in a heated moment. Riggan’s lined face radiates stress, his lips perpetually bent into a beleaguered frown.
But Riggan has ways of feeling less helpless. When no one is looking, he’s telekinetic, effortlessly closing doors or moving flower vases without the touch of a finger. And it gets weirder. That disembodied voice from the first scene? That, we come to understand, is a twisted, egomaniacal version of the character who made Riggan famous. And “Birdman” is pissed that Riggan has forgotten who he is: A Hollywood bigshot, and a fucking superhero. Birdman has a way of shitting on Riggan and stoking his ego in the same breath, bemoaning Riggan’s fall from grace in vicious, judgmental terms, all while suggesting that Riggan is better than all the little people.
So what to make of the telekinesis and the voice in Riggan’s head? Is Riggan just fantasizing to deal with his own sense of impotence? Is he nuts? Or is all this…for real? It’s never really clear, nor should it be. Iñárritu isn’t out for anything straightforward, and “Birdman” isn’t some simple depiction of an artist clawing his way back into the limelight, dripping sweat and integrity. Instead, the film suggests that artistry requires more than perspiration: It requires a kind of psychosis, a volatile brew of egomania and grandiose dreams.
Riggan’s life is further complicated by the last-second casting of Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a mercurial, famously difficult stage performer with a bizarre lack of concern for what others think of him. Shiner’s drive for artistic purity leads to an unfortunate habit of directing his director whenever he sees fit, even mid-performance.
Rounding out the film’s cast are Naomi Watts as Riggan’s insecure female lead, Andrea Riseborough as his slightly crazed, apparently pregnant lover (also cast in his play), Zach Galifianakis as his put-upon, sycophantic producer, and Amy Ryan as his concerned ex-wife. The tight hallways and cramped dressing rooms of Riggan’s 800-seat theater can hardly contain their wailing, clashing personalities. But then, that’s what a good play is supposed to be: A presentation of conflict, roiling within the crucible of a tight space.
Speaking of which, “Birdman’s” lively, hyperkinetic camerawork is stunning given the close confines of the film’s setting. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki favor long, single-take tracking shots, swiftly following characters through tight hallways or, in one hysterical sequence, the dense crowds of Times Square. (Riggan is in his underwear. Don’t ask.) The camera is always rushing with jarring urgency, occasionally panning to reveal hidden details lurking just off-screen. And Antonio Sanchez’s percussion-driven score pushes everything into full-on coronary mode, pounding on the nerves like an accelerated, arrhythmic heartbeat.
Keaton delivers the best performance of his career, palpably conveying Riggan’s bizarre mélange of raw stress, deep self-loathing, and unrestrained ambition. The film’s greatest flaw, in fact, is that it forgets its supporting characters as Riggan’s story overtakes the final act. Mike Shiner’s arc particularly suffers. Initially played by Norton with the aggressive, blowhard confidence of a committed, know-it-all artiste, Shiner is just beginning to reveal layers of insecurity and humanity—particularly in scenes with Emma Stone’s Sam—when the film just kind of forgets about him.
But one can only complain so much: Riggan’s material is glorious. Increasingly unhinged, his private, action-movie inflected fantasies spill out onto the streets of Manhattan, exploding helicopters and all. “They love this shit!” enthuses a suddenly corporeal Birdman. “They love action! Not this talky, depressing philosophical bullshit!”
In that moment at least, Riggan agrees. His imagination isn’t Carver material—it’s a zillion-dollar blockbuster. But maybe that’s just the point: To become a grounded auteur, Riggan must first soar in his mind, battling demons and blurring the line between life and delusion.
To be a great artist, you have to be kind of insane.
— David Teich