I have to be honest with you, Michael Keaton is my favourite incarnation of Batman. No offence to Adam West or Christian Bale but there’s something about those two Tim Burton films that just gives me so much joy. Quite simply, I love Michael Keaton and no amount of shitty Christmas films is ever going to stop that. So I couldn’t imagine anything better than hearing Keaton was set to star in a life-mirroring film about the washed-up star of a Superhero franchise. Michael Keaton going all Being John Malkovich on us and get super meta? Jesus, I was excited. I have to admit that I spent a lot the film wondering whether I still would and, despite seeing the now 60+ year old running around in his grungy tighty whities, I probably would. After Edward Norton, of course.
I’ve seen a number of people referring to Birdmanas a superhero film, which seems like dodgy marketing to me. Yes, the fictional alter ego of actor Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) keeps a pretty strong presence throughout the film but those turning up expecting to see the ex-Batman star parading around in a leather jumpsuit are going to be pretty fucking disappointed. The latest film from director Alejandro González Iñárritu has so much more to offer than any of the latest releases from Marvel and DC (and I say that as a life-long fan of grown-ups pretending to hunt super-villains and aliens).
The film actually deals with actor Riggan’s Broadway debut as writer, director and star of an adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story ‘What We Mean When We Talk About Love’. Having never found the kind of fame that he experienced during his Birdman glory days, Riggan is desperate to both prove himself as an actor. Unfortunately, his past continues to haunt his inner thoughts, complete with Christian Bale style gravelly voice, by adding bitchy commentary to every situation. Birdman becomes the voice of Riggan’s fears and self-doubt. When several disasters arise before opening night, the unbalanced actor must avoid falling into complete emotional instability.
The script, written by Iñárritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo, is playfully meta and up-to-date with its pop culture references. The script doesn’t pull any punches and ensures that nobody is safe. It plays with Hollywood vanities whilst showing that theatre actors are just as fucked up. Taking equal jabs at high brow and populist culture, the writers make sure that egotistical New York critics don’t get off scot free. The script is unashamedly current and self-aware without ever feeling smug. For the first time, the director of hard-hitting dramas like 21 Grams, Babel and Biutifulwalks the comic path and gets the chance to have a bit of fun.
Something that is made most clear in the technical side of the film. Birdmanhas been created in such a way that it feels like one continuous take. Aided by Emmanuel Lubezki, who’s fucking insane cinematography for Gravitywon him an Oscar last year, Iñárritu puts you at the heart of the story. Through long, careful tracking shots the camera winds its way through busy corridors and narrow stairways, moves in close for private conversations and soars high over New York city. For a film dealing with the competition between film and stage acting, Iñárritu’s use of the camera blurs the lines between the two: offering the sustained intensity of the stage with the intimacy of the cinema. If you’re worried it all sounds a bit too gimmicky, then don’t . It’s fucking mesmerising.
The non-stop and energetic nature that this camera work suggests is only aided by Antonio Sanchez’s fantastic score. His jazzy soundtrack, featuring an abundance of drum and cymbal, adds to the comic tone and offers an edgy and frantic vibe to the action on screen. It holds together the director’s continuous shot effect and gives the actors plenty of room to play with pace. Sanchez has created a very complex and accomplished score that lifts the already fruitful narrative and great performances.
Performances that don’t get much better than Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson. A lot has been made about the connection between Keaton and Thompson and there is no doubt that their similarities add a great deal. You can’t imagine anyone else approaching this role and succeeding in quite the same way. Keaton is on fucking amazing form; he is playful, funny, cutting and has no problem with the verbal intensity of the role. Riggan is at times ridiculous and incomprehensible but Keaton plays everything with a wistfulness and desperation that warms you to him. It is a fucking brilliant performance that will rightly receive attention in award season.
Keaton only gets better when he comes face-to-face with his fantastic co-stars; none more so than Edward Norton as narcissistic stage actor, Mike Shiner. Norton is also facing a fictional version of himself as he portrays Shiner. Confronting the reputation he has for being difficult to work with, Norton fucking kills as the egomaniac brought in the day before the show previews. Thankfully, Norton manages to find the perfect balance between arrogance and sincerity so Shiner still has a shred of humanity beneath all the ego. There are so many moments, in both fiction and reality, when Norton steals the show.
Most often during his quieter scenes with Emma Stone. Stone is a genuinely fantastic performer in all her roles but she brings even more to the part of Riggan’s ex-drug addict daughter, Sam. Successfully ensuring that there is still a lovable edge to the damaged, cynical young woman who is fresh out of rehab. Working as Riggan’s PA, Sam is desperately trying to connect with her father and bring him up-to-date with the current climate of social media and trending topics. Although, it’s Stone’s sizzling chemistry with Norton than really sticks out and the two rooftop scenes they share are some of the best on show.
There is less work for the remaining supporting cast but they still get enough of a time to shine. Top amongst them is the incredible Lindsay Duncan who is fucking unforgettable as the icy, unflinching theatre critic set to destroy Riggan’s last chance. Playing amazingly against type is Zach Galifianakis who presents the voice of reason amongst all the crazy as Riggan’s friend and producer. Amy Ryan, only allowed a short time on screen, plays Riggan’s ex-wife in a calm and collected manner that helps bring out his emotional side. The final two women fair the worst and are all but forgotten. However, Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough offer sterling work as the play’s leading ladies.
Birdmanis one of those films that demands your attention. It is made with great care by a bunch of talented people and you can’t help but lap it all up. Of course, there are moments when it kind of feels like a young child playing up in front of an audience; perhaps showing off just a little too much. Also, there are plot-lines that feel too open-ended and unresolved. As though in the rush to create tension and chaos, the writers added one too many things to the pot. The end result is by no means inedible but it’s just a little less satisfying than you thought it might have been. Still, a must-see film if ever there was one.