The former Batman actor is ideally cast as a faded star once famed for his superhero roles
Sometimes a film’s success very much depends on having the right actor in the lead, especially if the film is essentially about that actor. You can’t imagine Being John Malkovich working if Spike Jonze hadn’t persuaded Mr M to take the bait; yes, there are other elegantly eccentric leading men, but Being Jeremy Irons? Being Julian Sands? Hardly the same. Similarly, backstage comedy Birdman – about a faded Hollywood actor once famous for a superhero role – touches a nerve partly because it stars Michael Keaton, whose career declined steadily after Batman Returns (1992). Of course, director Alejandro González Iñárritu might have considered Keaton’s successor in the Batcape, Val Kilmer, but you can’t imagine him being nearly as good; as for the next incumbent of Wayne Manor, George Clooney, playing a shop-soiled also-ran, I somehow doubt we’d have bought that.
The first thing you applaud about Birdman is Keaton’s audacity in accepting the role of neurotic Tinseltown veteran Riggan Thomson – and Iñárritu’s chutzpah in offering it to him. The payoff is a considerable comeback for both men. The actor will be unavoidable during the awards season, while the Mexican virtuoso director of Amores Perros fame stages a triumphant return to form after his lugubriously self-important woes-of-the-world drama Biutiful.
Birdman, cumbersomely subtitled “Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”, is set, and substantially filmed, in and around New York’s St James theatre, where Thomson is attempting to relaunch his career with an earnest stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. His co-star is Mike (Edward Norton), a strutting Broadway luminary who soon starts challenging him for control of the show. Also involved are Thomson’s damaged, resentful daughter Sam (Emma Stone); the play’s two female leads (Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough); and its harassed producer (a surprisingly muted Zach Galifianakis). And hovering on the sidelines, or at the back of Thomson’s psyche, is his action-movie alter ego Birdman, at first only as a snarling, basso off-screen voice, but later to manifest in his full winged and masked glory.
Scripted by Iñárritu with Alexander Dinelaris Jr and Biutiful collaborators Nicolás Giacobone and Armando Bo, Birdman is impartial towards its satirical targets. On one hand it twits the vanities of Hollywood types. Thomson is a deluded bundle of anxieties, bitter about his decline and other actors’ greater success in superhero suits. On the other hand, theatre folk don’t emerge looking any nobler: Mike makes a big song and dance about “wrestling with complex human emotions”, but he’s clearly more interested in wrestling with Thomson’s daughter.
Sophisticated and hugely entertaining as the film is, there’s no getting around the fact that it’s also something of a novelty act. Birdman feigns to be shot, apart from brief bookends, in a single elaborate tracking shot, in the manner of Hitchcock’s Rope. The camera – mesmerisingly piloted by Emmanuel Lubezki, the master cinematographer of Gravity – slinks along corridors, up and down staircases, bounds into the sky and in one priceless sequence follows a near-naked Thomson through the crowds of Times Square. It makes for stunning, breathless circus – but I must confess, the first time I saw Birdman, I was entirely distracted by the camera choreography.
On a second viewing, script and performances came into their own. Some characterisations are a little schematic, some underwritten: Riseborough and Watts don’t get a great deal to work with. Other roles come to life thanks to actors going at them with vim or, in the case of Lindsay Duncan as a murderously ungenerous critic, with glacial poise. A flamboyantly obnoxious Norton shows hitherto unsuspected evidence of comic brio, while a superb Amy Ryan contributes a controlled bass note of sanity as Thomson’s ex. The great revelation is Emma Stone, her Sam a potent fusion of cynicism and bruised candour, finished off with that extraordinary smoky voice.
As for Keaton, investing Thomson with his own weathered vulnerability, he recoups considerable personal grandeur from the collapse of his character. There’s real poignancy and panache here, suggesting expressive resources that Keaton’s career has rarely given him the chance to mine.
The film fairly barrels along, fuelled by Antonio Sanchez’s furious jazz drum score. But ultimately, Birdman is a hard movie to embrace unconditionally – it feels too knowing, too immaculately timed a display of mastery to really breathe. Even so, there’s plenty to enjoy and more still to admire. Birdman has wings, for certain, even if you find the feathers sticking in your throat now and then.
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