Michael Keaton, that zany, absurdist comedian who burst on the scene in the late 80’s, and through the 90’s became just as talented with drama, has returned to the realm of relevant cinema in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Birdman,” a brilliant exploration of the cult of celebrity, and a character that confirms Keaton is immune to typecasting. An outstanding supporting ensemble and exquisite cinematography are sublime icing on the cake of a psychological dramedy that blurs the lines between theater and life, fiction and reality.
A serious (and tonally less serious) departure for director Inarritu, the film takes Broadway backstage drama, a witty shake-down of the entertainment business, and the psychological examination of a celebrity hoping to find himself, and throws it in a blender. Except, instead of a hodge-podge of disparate parts that never fit, these somewhat dissimilar pieces are strung together by what must be and most likely will be the greatest achievement in photography this year. Emmanuel Lubeski’s cinematography, a long-take format wherein the entire film is designed to look like a single unbroken shot, is the stuff of wizards. The floating camera invites us the same way a great theater production enraptures. Five minute, ten minute, fifteen minute scenes between characters are played out with peerless confidence, such as the highlight of watching Keaton and Edward Norton rehearse a scene together from the play they’re producing, a rendition of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Norton chews into the role of diva theater star Mike Shiner with aplomb, somehow turning pretentious douchebaggery into an endearing character trait. And Keaton reminds us why he was both Beetlejuice and Batman, justifying the Oscar buzz with a performance that transcends all manner of pigeonholing, with a role in Riggan Thompson that eerily resembles his own life or at least his own career. Zach Galifianakis brings the funny as Riggan’s accountant and lawyer and the one holding the circus together. Naomi Watts brings the tears as a struggling actress who’s finally made it to the big time at the tender age of 40. Amy Ryan brings reality, a reminder of the past, the ex-wife who loves Riggan but can’t bear to entertain his delusions for a second. Lindsay Duncan brings the cold shoulder in a role that eviscerates the notion of “critic.” And as Riggan’s daughter, Emma Stone brings the 21st century slap to the face the character needs, particularly when it comes time to evaluate the meaning of “super-realism.” Whatever that means (hint: not much).
Every year audiences are inundated with one comic-book adventure after another, Hollywood at its over-saturated finest, films branded like Happy Meals. “Birdman” is about a man trying to escape his branding, the bird suit that’s hung over him his entire career, and now hangs over him in the form of a demented voice that encourages his darkest impulses. He’s finally reaching for substance, in his work, in his relationships, with his family, attempting to achieve some semblance of relevance in a world that’s passed him by in 140 characters or less. There’s meaning here somewhere amid the juggling acts, and Inarritu does his best to make sure we don’t notice the seams. He mostly succeeds. Some of the backstage romances are puzzling, such as a brief make-out session between Watts’ character and Riggan’s squeeze, played by Andrea Riseborough, a lesbian detour that leads nowhere. Ditto the attraction between Norton’s diva and Stone’s angry young’un, scenes whose primary purpose is getting both to wax philosophical. They share a simultaneous distaste and fondness for Riggan, the latter which they reveal to each other but never to the man himself, until he forces them to. Like the character he’s portraying on stage, Riggan’s relationships are out of his control, carrying on in a direction that he seems to have no say in, from his pregnant girlfriend to his resentful daughter, from the voice in his head to the voices in his script. That voice in his head provides for ample satiric comedy, even if it ultimately leads to a prolonged dream sequence of wish-fulfillment which hammers home the frail state of Riggan’s mind while also outstaying its welcome as worthy metaphor. However, these are minor quibbles surrounded by something close to a masterpiece.
This isn’t just the story of a man punishing himself for his past mistakes, this isn’t just the story of a man with a voice in his head, and this isn’t just the story of celebrity gone awry. This is the downward spiral of someone on the path to destruction, and the upward spiral of someone destined for rebirth. Hell, maybe it’s none of those. Forget the cynic’s sheen coating this thing, maybe Inarritu’s saying it’s the people we kiss, sleep with, love with, and talk with about love that matter…what we talk about when we talk about love. Either way, like the long-gone but never forgotten Michael Keaton himself, “Birdman” cannot be pigeonholed.