In a moviegoing season increasingly scattered with self-aware metafictions about the art of storytelling, and its mingling with sordid monetary pursuits, Birdman stands apart as a true original. This twistedly sentient flight of fancy is not a meditation on the artist, but a primal screech to be heard and accounted for—a guttural cry of defiance against any that would attempt to quantify or qualify the need to create (and be admired for it). That it comes in the shape of Michael Keaton wearing a Birdman costume makes it all the louder in its endless reverberation.
Yes, the movie is very much about Keaton playing a faded movie star trying to birth a comeback with an art project, albeit on the Broadway stage as opposed to an Alejandro González Iñárritu masterpiece, and indeed the actor’s own history of capes and cowls informs nearly every frame of Birdman. While the real-life Keaton is not wrong to stress that his new onscreen alter ego, Riggan Thomson, is probably far closer to Iñárritu’s persona than his own, there is also a reason why Iñárritu’s screenplay (which was also drafted by Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo) feels the need to repeat that Riggan last played a superhero in 1992, or that the production design made sure any Birdman poster art was lettered in gold-trimmed bold, black font. Even co-star Edward Norton’s own brief and tumultuous flirtation with blockbuster franchising is hinted at when Norton’s Mike Shiner appears in the film after abruptly quitting/being fired from his last project.
However, this is not so much a mirthful wink at the audience as it is about contextualizing the frustration of a failed artist in a movie star’s body, particularly in an age where Hollywood is dominated by spandex. It’s likewise compulsory to note the distinction between artist and actor since Riggan Thomson is not quite sure if he truly can act; he’s just the personification of the human need to be loved, be it from fanboys or the upper-echelon of New York society. Also a nasty amalgamation of selfishness, avarice, and pride, Riggan does not require the wing-shaped devil of his Birdman subconscious to magically conjure at will in order to make bad decisions. He’s already completely ego, and the Birdman hallucination is a uniquely robust form of super-id.
Thus Riggan’s desire to cross the boards of the Great White Way feels more like an induced form of reinvention since his glorious Hollywood kingdom has become infested with imitators, which Birdman helpfully points out by name-dropping Michael Fassbender, Jeremy Renner, and Robert Downey Jr. as actors currently unavailable for the theatre. If the world is forcing Riggan to keep Birdman bottled up, he’ll just imagine his own reality on 44th Street’s historic St. James Theatre. Of course, such creative freedom might let him stretch his wings as well.
Told over the course of several weeks during the worst Broadway previews this side of a Bono musical, Birdman follows Riggan on a tenuous quest for dramatic credibility. Adapting his literary hero Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love as a play he’s written, directed, and stars in, Riggan senses that legitimacy as a thespian is within grasp, despite his continuing distance from drug-recovering daughter Sam (Emma Stone), his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), and his current leading lady and lover, Laura (Andrea Riseborough). Meanwhile Riggan’s best friend Brandon (Zach Galifianakis), who is also the play’s producer, is just worried about staying on budget and not getting sued after a mediocre co-star was cracked across the skull by a falling light…the possible result of Riggan’s imaginary BFF, Birdman.
The early accident at first seems like a boon for the production since it allows the much-respected and idolized method actor Mike Shiner (Norton) to join the show. But Shiner spends as much time working against Riggan’s directions and sanity as he does playing his character. And with the cellophane Birdman already whispering in Riggan’s ear, the star’s grip on lucidity seems like a fluid concept at best.
The most striking and immediately noticeable aspect of Birdman’s dreamlike aesthetic is Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s methodical camera work, which creates the illusion of the film being one uninterrupted tracking shot. Not an entirely original trick, as Lubezki and director Alfonso Cuarón have chased it in intervals during Children of Men and Gravity, Birdman nevertheless makes the approach its own. Indeed, the wall-to-wall camera movement evokes the full feature efforts of Alfred Hitchcock, William V. Skall and Joseph Valentine’s Rope. But whereas that underrated Hitch gem could be criticized as stagebound, Lubezki’s camera uses a literal stage to soar and transcend the St. James Theatre, as if it were the titular fowl hero himself.
There can be no hyperbole in considering the staggering intimacy articulated by this elaborate planning, suggesting that the camera operator might even deserve credit as a cast member. The result is the audience being invited into a manic ballet with the performers, as if the lens too strives for the artistic recognition coveted by Riggan, the self-anointed Broadway maestro.
In that role, Keaton delivers a career best performance that is hopelessly tragic and seething with hilarity, often in the same scene—even sometimes in the same minute. The rapidity with which Riggan veers from foiled talent or father to a demented superhero longing for a fourth film entitled “Birdman: The Phoenix Rises” plays up Keaton’s regularly untapped range between comedy, drama, and a dash of schizophrenia. His work is so deviously good that when Birdman insists to Riggan that they should give the “pimple faces” the apocalypse porn they demand, Iñárritu feels obligated to acquiesce in the movie’s simultaneous salute and mockery of mindless pop culture.
What is popular and what’s quality amounts to the greatest struggle for Riggan and his filmmaking counterparts. As Norton’s buffoonishly tortured soul sneers on a Times Square corner, “Popularity is prestige’s slutty little cousin.” But the distinction seems muddied throughout a film shot in and around a New York City destination crawling with Spider-Man, Iron Man, and (oh yes) Batman street performers. Prestige also hardly seems more sincere when Riggan’s other co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts) acts more infatuated with being a Broadway star than becoming her Raymond Carver-penned creation. And with finger-waving New York Times critics impugning Riggan’s movie star audacity to sully the theatre with his vanity, it’s enough to embrace the magical realism of a bird suit.
Birdman cautiously walks the line between drama and fable, often planting suggestions that the fantasies in Riggan’s head could be an expression of true virtuosity spilling unbridled into his surroundings. This will undoubtedly lead to multiple readings of the film’s entire narrative, but the supporting work from all involved is too strong for me to accept Riggan’s fairytale potential. After all, Keaton’s scenes with Stone especially underscore a brutal antipathy that left scars too real for winged avengers.
My screening of Birdman marked the final day of the New York Film Festival, which for this year has seen lyrical tributes to the craft of performance (Clouds of Sils Maria) and meaningless Hollywood insider cynicism that came up empty (Maps to the Stars). Birdman, in many respects, acts as a fitting curtain call on these meta-musings. But whereas those Olivier Assayas and David Cronenberg films sought to define the need to create, Birdman wraps its talons around a definitive answer: adulation. It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy since Birdman is every bit as hypnotic as it is innovative, having a perverse originality that will be long deconstructed by film schools and Internet forums alike. For those similar to Riggan, thirsting for lofty laurels like best movie of the year, this might be it.