It’s hard to say what audiences are expecting from Birdman, as the buzz from film festivals, promotional trailers, piles of critical acclaim and even the poster give a disjointed idea of what the film is. If any quick-sell catch phrase could sum this up, it must be The Michael Keaton Art Movie.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s film announces its determination to be strange, bold and fearlessly off-putting from the very beginning and never worries about going too far, explaining itself or giving its audience a break. This isn’t to say I didn’t like Birdman, only that I recognize that the movie is full of itself in ways that don’t always work.
Keaton stars as Riggan, a movie star best known for playing the super hero of the title, now trying to show his abilities as a serious Broadway stage performer. While helming a play based on a Raymond Carver story, Riggan’s struggles as an actor and director builds to a self-imposed sabotage; his insecurities as a performer are as extreme as those in his cast. Even worse, he’s hearing the voice of his Birdman character, who acts as a sarcastic muse.
Inarritu has staged the film to make it appear to have been filmed in one continuous shot. It’s an ambitious idea, allowing audiences to share the claustrophobia of being backstage with the actors, marching through long halls that play like the contours of Riggan’s mind. There is an amazing scene, where Riggan is locked out of his theater during a preview performance and must figure out how to re-enter the building and make his cue to return to stage. This one scene (and it’s a killer) is the lone example where the illusion of the continuous take is especially effective, as we feel the suspense as the sequence carries out in real time.
Otherwise, scenes of the actors walking and talking, with the performers leaning into the lens for a fish-eyed effect, becomes redundant. There are also moments of magical realism and startling surrealism (with a drum-based score that can be distracting) that are so in-your-face, I often wished the bombardment of style would shut up so I could hear the characters.
The ensemble cast is impressive. Edward Norton is playing with his image as much as Keaton, cleverly cast as a “difficult” actor. Naomi Watts reveals the pain and drive of a hard-working actress (she gave a similarly bruising performance in Ellie Parker). Zach Galifianakis is stunningly good in a rare dramatic turn as Keaton’s agent and Emma Stone is scrubbed entirely of glamour as Keaton’s rebellious daughter. Amy Ryan and Andrea Riseborough have some of the nicest character moments as the key women in Riggan’s life.
This plays like Lewis Carroll’s Noises Off or Terry Gilliam taking on A Chorus Line, as tonal shifts and backstage drama intermingle with the nature of reality vs. the safe distance art provides the artists. As I left the theater, I found the movie to be dizzying and frustrating, though I liked many scenes more upon reflection than when I was watching them. A priceless bit with Riggan confronting an especially cruel theater critic is my favorite moment, in a film loaded with memorably daffy bits.
There is a great deal of speculation around Keaton’s performance, regarding how much it resembles his own life and whether he’ll win an Oscar for his trouble. While Keaton digs deep and movingly portrays the tortured layers of his beautifully messy character, this isn’t his finest performance. He’s bared his soul before in Clean and Sober and his under-appreciated work in Multiplicity and Pacific Heights were as award worthy as anything he does in Birdman.
If this fusion of fantasy, psychological thriller and dark comedy brings further attention to Keaton and his considerable body of work, then good. He still has a lot of creative (beetle) juice left in the tank.