Michael Keaton has never really gotten his due as an actor. His insanely bizarre (and wonderful) performance in Beetlejuice was followed by a subdued, underwhelming turn in Batman (although it’s my favorite Batman movie to be sure) and then, despite some good performances, he just sort of disappeared into the morass of very good but slightly forgotten character actors. Birdman is sure to grab Keaton an Oscar nom, and Keaton’s performance is strong, but the movie is not the masterpiece people think it is. It’s a pretty good study of an actor’s neurosis, but more than anything it feels like a gimmicky show-piece, tailored for awards season, featuring a sort of greatest hits collection of actor moments. Everybody gets to shout and cry and have a nervous breakdown, which will make things easy come Oscar time when they have to pick a scene to showcase the nominee(s).
The film follows Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor whose main achievement was playing a superhero in a film series called Birdman. Now Thomson is making his triple-threat Broadway debut, directing and starring in a play he adapted from the Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Thomson is fraught with self-doubt and plagued by the voice of Birdman, who picks at him relentlessly at times, criticizing his every move and urging him to rekindle the Birdman flames by doing yet another sequel. This constant inner-critic may be quite real, especially for actors, and the movie suggests that every character in Birdman who is an actor is plagued by some sort of constant, nagging, demeaning voice inside. What’s more, Riggan Thomson himself is endowed with actual superpowers. He can move objects with his mind—Carrie-style—and he can even fly. Well, it’s never clear if these are really super-powers or if Thomson is simply hallucinating like Russell Crowe’s character in A Beautiful Mind, but to the film’s credit, it allows this mystery to stay mysterious.
The director of Birdman is Alejandro Iñárritu, whose previous credits include the Brad Pitt-everything-is-connected drama Babel (2006) and the awards darling Biutiful (2010). Iñárritu seems to enjoy putting people together who are ready to tear into each other and then stepping back and letting the sparks and wigs fly. (This is theater after all, and everyone is always on one side or the other of hair and make-up.) Iñárritu is fascinated by the inner-workings of the theater, and he obviously thinks we are too. But his fascination begins and ends with the pet neuroses of his characters, the actors. The non-actor characters in Birdman (except for Emma Stone’s character) are basically invisible. Actors acting is the main attraction, put on display like a sideshow attraction at a traveling circus. It’s like watching the autopsy of a play, or more likely, the autopsy of the art of performance. It feels all the more “behind-the-scenes-ish” because of the camera, which treats Birdman like a documentary.
Birdman feels fluid and alive because the director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity), is fond of shooting in long takes and letting the camera move around the set like a person. Most of the film takes place inside an old New York City theater, and the camera travels its narrow halls and invades it little claustrophobic rooms—as well as the main stage—like a nosy bystander recording every scene with a cell phone. Lubezki’s camera-work gives Birdman a certain visual style that has the ability to “wow” audiences because it’s very different from what they’re used to. And the movie bounches with energy as a result, even though that energy isn’t particularly organic. As interesting as the camera-work is, it feels like the movie’s chief gimmick, a hollow, obvious attempt to avoid feeling too stagey, too theatrical.
That’s the real issue I have with Birdman. Its many gimmicks don’t add up to anything substantive. There are lots of scenes of actors playing actors acting. And there are lots of scenes of actors playing actors having meltdowns or panic attacks. Iñárritu has identified all the well-known idiosyncrasies of artists who are terrified of failure and success, and who can never believe in their own talent. Naomi Watts, playing one of the stars of Thomson’s forthcoming play, has a moment when she realizes with utter disillusionment that she’s finally made it to Broadway and that the experience, one which she dreamed about most of her life, isn’t as satisfying as she’d imagined it. Or rather, it’s hugely crushing and ambiguous because it’s a giant success that’s riddled with frustrations and smaller disappointments. She longs to be validated by Riggan, who himself is seeking validation too. Watts is good, but there’s very little in her character beyond “self-obsessed neurotic actress,” which might easily have been written into the stage notes introducing her character if Birdman were an actual play.
There’s little dimension to most of these characters. Most of them are emotional wrecks, and the two characters who are supposedly the most dysfunctional are actually the most stable. One, played by Edward Norton, is a notoriously unpredictable theater actor named Mike Shiner, and the other, played by Emma Stone, is Riggan’s daughter, Sam, a recovering junkie. I could never quite buy her as a wreck because she seemed so much more together than the rest of the group. And Norton’s character, who shocks his co-stars by taking big risks on the stage, turns out to be the film’s voice of reason. He shouldn’t be, because he’s a jerk, but Iñárritu always allows him to make more sense than anyone else right after he’s done something to justifiably enrage them. He too is a kind of gimmick in this movie. The first time we see him, he strips down naked without a hint of shyness so the costume designer can fit him. He’s not afraid of being naked on the stage, you see. He’s a real actor who’s already done the work of feeling comfortable within himself and with his body. Fear of nakedness—physical or emotional—is for naïfs. Later, during a bed scene in the play, he tries to get Naomi Watts’s character to actually sleep with him, to make it more real.
There is too much shouty, dramatic acting in Birdman and too much excessive neurosis. The movie is self-important, and maybe too aware of the fact that it has so much “going for it” in a sense. It does have a fine cast and parts that any actor would covet. Plus, it gets to play the literary game by referencing Raymond Carver, darling of the creative writing circuit, in almost every scene. But the Carver obsession feels self-indulgent. (Although that might just be my aversion to his writing.) The Raymond Carver we get in Birdman feels like straight Tennessee Williams: spare, ultra-male middle-class dysfunction, a less-bewitching, more economic version of A Streetcar Named Desire.
But, there are worse things than Birdman. It’s fascinating at times, and the drum score by Antonio Sanchez is pretty fantastic. It’s the most energizing thing about this movie. With Zach Galifianakis, who’s quite good as a prissy, anxious producer; Amy Ryan, as Thomson’s ex-wife and the calmest figure in the movie, Andrea Riseboroguh, Merritt Wever, and Lindsay Duncan.