Michael Keaton plays a superhero trying to spread his wings on Broadway in this entertaining whirligig co-starring Edward Norton. Three stars.
"Birdman" proves that a movie — the grabbiest, most kinetic film ever made about putting on a play — can soar on the wings of its own technical prowess, even as the banality of its ideas threatens to drag it back down to earth.
Much of what you've heard is true. The movie's just plain fun to watch. Its star, Michael Keaton, is someone everyone likes and many love, an actor who made millions on "Batman" and settled for a different level of fame and smaller pieces of smaller pies. Already, Keaton has gotten a career reboot out of "Birdman," and he's a cinch for an Academy Award nomination.
The visual conceit of "Birdman" is simple yet striking. It unfolds in long, several-minute takes and roving, prowling tracking shots, stitched together both practically (the way Hitchcock's "Rope" was) and digitally to lend the impression of a sustained backstage, onstage, above-stage and streetscape diary of a movie star in rehearsal and in various stages of panic mode. The story spans several days en route to opening night on Broadway.
Co-writer and director Alejandro G. Inarritu and his brilliant cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, are going for a complementary bookend to "Gravity," for which Lubezki won an Oscar. This is "Levity," at least by the 10-ton, gravely pompous standards of the Inarritu who gave us "Babel" and "Biutiful."
For better or worse, "Birdman" is a movie in which things happen to and around the faded movie star at its center, as opposed to a narrative propelled by the character. Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a fictionalized version of Keaton himself, right down to the shared number of syllables in both names. Thomson is adapting, directing and starring in a stage version of the Raymond Carver short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," thick with the themes of ego, suicide, love, ex-spouses and other regrets.
The gods appear to be against his endeavor. A mediocre actor gets conked on the head during a rehearsal, Thomson is forced to recast the role. Another cast member, played by Naomi Watts, has an angle on nabbing a famous Method actor (played by Edward Norton, sending up his own difficult reputation with delightful aplomb) on short notice. He's in, and before long he's lecturing Thomson and dropping axioms such as "Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige."
As Thomson's final preview performances careen from disaster to disaster, "Birdman" flies all over the place, its place being Broadway's St. James Theatre on 44th Street in midtown Manhattan. Scenes are placed in the catwalks above the stage, in various dressing rooms and in tentative romantic interludes between Norton and Emma Stone, the latter playing Thomson's daughter, recently out of rehab and still smarting over how little her dad was around.
Against a terrific percussion-based soundtrack from Antonio Sanchez, "Birdman" sounds a chorus of actorly insecurities, populated by lost souls hung up on whom they love or whom they should love, and their own fragile yet monstrously scaled egos. None has a more corroded soul than The New York Times drama critic (Lindsay Duncan, mean as a snake), who informs Thomson at a bar one evening that, come opening night, she will be destroying his efforts. Why? Because he's Hollywood, not Broadway.
Throughout the film, the masked and winged superhero Thomson once played in the movies mumbles insults or provocations in his ear and eventually makes an on-screen appearance. A homeless man (Bill Camp) rants his way through the "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech from "Macbeth" at one point, which brings up the question: Is "Birdman" full of sound and fury signifying much of anything, really?
Not a great deal, I think. Formally bold but thematically timid, it's selling a familiar line of goods and it goes easy on its main character. Thomson, we're told, cheated on his wife and wasn't much of a father, but, well, whatever. He's a dreamer, a striver. Inarritu has discussed in various interviews how "Birdman" grew out of his own egocentric demons, and it's his attempt to lighten up. He's clearly striking back at his own critics by way of the pathologically adversarial drama critic played by Duncan. Yet the director, who wrote his script with Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo, acknowledges in "Birdman" that those critics may have been right about the near-fatal levels of self-seriousness in Inarritu's earlier work.
The viewer can take "Birdman" as capital-M Meaningful or else as pleasantly devoid of deep thoughts. It's the same sensory experience either way. The verbal wit cannot possibly compete with the things the camera's doing. The inside jokes include digs at Meg Ryan's plastic surgery and Keaton's own wobbly fame post-"Batman." The actor runs through Times Square in his underwear in "Birdman"; more challengingly, he wrestles with some predictable soul-searching dialogue passages in his dressing room or in the wings, mixing it up with his skeptical producer (Zach Galifianakis) or gauging his own feelings regarding his actress lover of the moment (Andrea Riseborough).
If you crave a black comedy of serious nerve and truly abrasive wit, also dealing with an egocentric artist, Alex Ross Perry's "Listen Up Philip" opens this weekend along with "Birdman." If you want a movie that settles for somewhat less but is nonetheless a living, breathing, rollicking endeavor, "Birdman" is your specimen.
"Birdman" - 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence)