In the movie Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Riggan (Michael Keaton) is an unwanted actor. This isn’t the same as being an untalented actor. He isn’t trying to break into the business either. Riggan was once on top of the Hollywood mountain after starring in a trio of superhero films. The “Birdman” movies were massive hits, while also failing to fulfill enough of Riggan’s desires, so he left them behind to seek loftier cinematic pursuits.
This didn’t work out.
Twenty-five years on and Riggan is trying to get back into the good graces of casting directors everywhere. To do so he has put forth a significant chunk of his own finances to product, direct and star in a Raymond Carver adaptation on Broadway. It isn’t going entirely well. His friend and manager Jake (Zach Galifiankis) is constantly fretting, the lead actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) is all fried nerves, his co-star/girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) might be pregnant and a key role has been forced to drop-out due to, shall we say, whacky circumstances. Plus, Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is recently out of rehab and working for him; a relationship that isn’t exactly blooming after years of emotional distance. With the play in previews and days away from officially opening, Riggan worries backstate, all as he hears the voice of his iconic character Birdman in his head, ranting against all of the liars and phonies.
Once such point of contention is Mike (Edward Norton), a heavily adored actor that is taking over the aforementioned open role. Mike is also known as a premium brand of asshole who takes method acting to extremes, like at one point sexually forcing himself on an actress mid-show because it would make the intimacy of the scene richer.
Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel) puts Birdman together as high-wire and rapid. Realistic things happen in this story, rarely are they presented realistically. They are not meant to be. Riggan’s imagination roots itself in the unreal, allowing him to have temper-tantrums where rooms are demolished via his mind hurling items into the walls. More prominently, Inarritu connects the various plots of his movie along one line as if it were a single take. The camera is rarely pulled away, forcing the viewer to sit with the circus of faces going through extremes. One of the most beautiful looking movies of the year via Emmanual Lubezki’s cinematography, Inarritu’s characters scream and suffer, evolve and rejoice as if they were in the room with us.
It can be a bit of a chore. With the stakes so melodramatic at all times, the energy never shifts into an alternate gear for long. Sure, the amount of self-loathing and pointed barbs about actors, writers and critics are funny. Too often though they are easy and regurgitated. Again, in each moment they might work individually, merely losing their punch upon repetition. To be something truly great the themes either need more meat on the bones or the wit needs to be original.
The fantastic ensemble keeps it entertaining when the script misses the mark. Keaton is a wonder, shaking insecurities and confusion amassed into a man who regrets the majority of his life’s decisions. An actor that has always been able to play dark and funny, Birdman allows for him to channel both of those skills. Watts and Riseborough are a joy in their bipolar reactions. Stone proves to have a deeper, rougher edge than she has displayed before. Then there is Norton, who is working in rare form. His Mike is an inspired prick, licking up every ounce of hate people feed him, with Norton sporting the kind of grin one just wants to punch.
Birdman opens in Seattle tomorrow.