Michael Keaton turns in a powerful performance as a fading film star who makes a desperate bid for relevancy by staging an ambitious Broadway production in this absorbing black-comedy drama.
In Search of Relevance and Redemption
Michael Keaton portrays washed-up actor Riggan Thomson who’s best known for playing the lead character in the lucrative superhero film franchise “Birdman” more than 20 years ago. Riggan abandoned the franchise in the early ‘90s, because he felt his talents were being wasted playing a one-dimensional comic book character, and he wanted to be viewed as a serious actor and act in films befitting his talents.
Presently, Riggan’s decision to leave the successful film franchise has been haunting him, and he wrestles with the fact that perhaps he made the wrong decision. His career as a serious actor hasn’t quite panned out as he had hoped; he hasn’t had many critical successes or films that have come anywhere close to Birdman’s box office power. In addition to that, he has developed a drinking problem in the post-"Birdman" years, which contributed to his failed marriage.
In an effort to reignite his career and do something of merit, Riggan is staging a new adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It’s a very ambitious undertaking, as he’s not only starring in the play, but also directing and writing the adaptation. He feels this production could be his path back to relevancy—and more importantly his redemption: “This is my chance to do some work that actually means something,” he tells his daughter Sam. It’s a risky move both financially and career-wise on Riggan's part.
The World of the Theater
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu does a tremendous job in capturing the world of the theater and gives the audience an up-close and intimate view of that environment. Most of the film takes place at Broadway’s historic St. James Theatre, which gives Birdman an authentic look and feel. And it’s beautifully filmed by award-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Additionally, Birdman is filmed to look like one continuous tracking shot, which is quite impressive.
And the terrific screenplay was written by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo. The dialogue is smart, sharp and funny. And there are many gripping emotionally charged scenes as well quiet, touching ones.
Iñárritu draws strong performances from all of the members of his talented cast. Keaton delivers the performance of his career as Riggan Thomson, a fading film star who lives in the shadow of his iconic Birdman character and wants desperately to be acknowledged for something outside of that. Keaton brings a mix of desperation, anger, humor and sadness to the role of a man experiencing a serious identity crisis. It’s a finely nuanced performance that's fascinating to watch.
And Edward Norton lights up the screen as acclaimed Broadway actor Mike Shiner, who’s a last-minute replacement for one of the actors in Riggan’s play. Shiner is the ultimate method actor who lives and breathes for the stage. Giving a completely honest performance onstage is everything to him, and anything short of that is an affront to the art in his view. He’s very talented and intensely passionate about his art, but his behavior is often erratic and unpredictable, which makes him very difficult to work with. Norton skillfully brings this intriguing, complex character to life onscreen.
Moreover, Emma Stone is pitch-perfect as Riggan’s cynical drug-addict daughter Sam, who’s fresh out of rehab and works as his assistant. It’s easily Stone’s best work onscreen to date. And Naomi Watts delivers a sterling performance as Lesley, one of the actors in Riggan’s play. Watts brings a genuineness and honesty to her role of Lesley. There is a really touching and sweet scene between her and Riggan near the end of the film in which she expresses how much it meant to her that he provided her the opportunity to appear in a Broadway play, something she’s dreamed of ever since she was a little girl. It’s a nice quiet scene that is beautifully acted by Watts and Keaton.
Also, Amy Ryan shines as Sylvia Thomson, Riggan’s ex-wife and Sam’s mother. And Andrea Riseborough delivers a strong performance as Laura, an actress who’s part of the cast in Riggan’s play and his girlfriend. Additionally, Lindsay Duncan is great as acerbic theater critic Tabitha Dickenson. She has nothing but disdain for Hollywood actors who try to use the stage as a vehicle to revive their flagging careers. Her thoughts on Riggan: “He’s a Hollywood clown in a Lycra bird suit.” And a trimmed-down Zach Galifiankis turns in a quality performance as Jake, Briggan’s nervous, high-strung lawyer and co-financer.
Iñárritu employs elements of magical realism throughout the film to emphasize Riggan’s increasing disconnect from reality. He often imagines that his screen alter ego Birdman is talking to him (via voiceover) and giving him the brutal truth about his life and career. He also sometimes imagines that he possesses Birdman’s super powers—such as levitating and the ability to move objects with just the wave of his hand. The Birdman sequences are quite well done and become increasingly more pronounced as the film goes on until the line between fantasy and reality has become significantly blurred.
Parallels between Michael Keaton and Riggan Thomson
The parallels between Michael Keaton and Riggan Thomson were not lost on film critics and cinema buffs. Keaton starred in the very first “modern” Batman film back in 1989 and its sequel Batman Returns in ‘92. But he left the successful franchise before the third installment. Similarly, Riggan was the first actor to don the “Birdman” costume in the film that launched the franchise but left before the fourth installment in the early ‘90s. Of course, Keaton’s post-Batman career turned out to be more successful than Riggan’s after he left the "Birdman" franchise.
Birdman is one of the most praised films of 2014 and has won a truckload of awards. And it has garnered nine Oscar nominations, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Actor.
Not a film for Everyone
Birdman is a compelling film and boasts stellar performances from a very strong cast. However, it's not one of those across-the-board crowd-pleasers. Some might find a few of the scenes a bit drawn-out and boring, because there are long stretches of uninterrupted dialogue much like a play. But this is definitely the film for those who love talky films in a theatrical setting, which have great acting and smart, well-written dialogue.
International Trailer for Birdman
Birdman at Amazon