After you’ve seen Birdman, come back and listen to Slate’s Dana Stevens, David Haglund, and Forrest Wickman discuss the movie in our Spoiler Special.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s pitch-dark backstage comedy Birdman opens on an arresting image: a man in a dressing room, seated in the lotus position in his underwear, appearing to hover in midair. Is this a magic being capable of defying the laws of gravity? A regular earthbound man dreaming of flight? Or something in between the two—an illusionist? An actor? The camera, too, hovers for a long moment behind the man’s back, giving us time to wonder what kind of world we’ve been dropped into—then pulls back from this floating figure to investigate his shabby dressing room, before eventually zipping off down the narrow theater corridors, into the wings, and onto the stage. It’s the beginning of a movie that, while ultimately less satisfying than I hoped, features two breathtaking star turns: one from its lead actor and another from that camera, wielded by the indisputably magical Emmanuel Lubezki.
You’ve seen Lubezki’s bold and technically innovative work in Gravity and The Tree of Life. In Birdman, his camera bounds through the movie’s confined spaces like a curious animal, poking its nose wherever it wishes, following whomever it likes. Though it wouldn’t be accurate to say Birdman was filmed in a single long take—there are several moments when characters pass through a darkened space in order to mask visible cuts, the digital-age equivalent of the reel changes in Rope—Iñárritu and Lubezki go to great lengths to make sure the film feels to the viewer like one continuous shot. The necessary feats of timing and blocking on the parts of both cast and crew are spectacularly well conceived and executed, even if you’re not always sure how the illusion serves this specific story. But that roving camera is reliably one of the most intelligent and vibrant presences onscreen.
That’s saying something in a movie that contains a lead performance from Michael Keaton. Keaton, whose dervishlike energy and sly wit made him one of the revelations of 1980s screen comedy, turned down a $15 million offer to make a third Batman movie about 20 years ago and more or less retired to a quiet life on a Montana ranch.* (He’s appeared in a few movies here and there and does some voice work.) In interviews, he comes off as an essentially happy, thoughtful, and well-balanced person, with neither resentment toward nor nostalgia for show business.
That description could not be made of Riggan Thomson, the unwillingly retired ex-superhero-actor Keaton plays in Birdman. (Full title, by the way, per press materials: BIRDMAN or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, which, c’mon.) Keaton has said the part of Riggan wasn’t written specifically for him. If that’s true, it’s one inspired piece of casting. What we know of the actor’s own history as an abdicator of the superhero throne gives this role a depth beyond its somewhat thin conception on the page—which is not to discount Keaton’s phenomenal performance as the embittered showbiz has-been he could have been in another life.
But like the play Riggan Thomson is about to preview on Broadway—a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver story written, directed by, and starring Riggan himself—Birdman’s aesthetic and intellectual ambitions outstrip its actual ideas. For all its brilliant aspects—Emmanuel Lubezki’s restless camera and Michael Keaton’s restless face, not to mention Naomi Watts, Ed Norton, and Emma Stone giving razor-sharp comic performances—Birdman makes you gasp at its formal audacity even as you sigh at its thematic overfamiliarity. It’s a high-wire act strung over a void.
As Riggan’s Broadway show goes into previews, he’s in desperate straits. An injured actor has been replaced at the last minute by Mike Shiner (Norton), a grandstanding thespian whose obsession with onstage “honesty” extends to breaking the fourth wall to chew out an unappreciative audience. Shiner is sleeping with the play’s leading lady, Lesley (Watts), who’s a mess of nerves about her long-awaited Broadway debut. The show’s producer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis), keeps appearing in Riggan’s dressing room to update him on theater-world rumors of the play’s imminent collapse—and of course, to remind him that they’re almost out—seriously completely out—of money.
Meanwhile,Riggan’s daughter, Sam (Stone), fresh out of rehab, has begun working as her father’s assistant, but she can’t bring herself to forgive him for years of lackluster, self-obsessed parenting. She skulks through the theater in her dad’s wake, mocking him for his vanity and evident neediness, tearing his ego down as fast as he can build it back up.
Birdman continues to incorporate elements of magical realism after that first levitation scene. In an ongoing conceit, Riggan is visited in his dressing room by his superhero-suited alter ego (voiced by Keaton), a forbidding yet faintly comical figure clad in shimmering black feathers and a beaked mask.* Birdman is at once Riggan’s inner critic and his inner enabler, able to describe in detail all his creator’s worst character flaws and then shamelessly exploit them. But this split between the actor and the monstrously successful myth he’s created—which could have made for one of the richest relationships in the movie, not to mention a great acting challenge for Keaton—never transcends the status of a contrivance. We intermittently glimpse Birdman perched on the arm of a chair (or in one case, on a toilet). On and off, we hear his disembodied voice (impossibly low, like Keaton’s Batman rumble passed through an electronic gravelizer) as he cruelly torments Riggan with references to his past glory, then plies him with whatever empty puffery he needs to hear. But we never get a sense of what playing this character once meant to Riggan, much less learn anything about the iconography or fandom of the scowling, winged superhero. For a movie that both stars and tells the story of a former cape-wearer, Birdman seems notably uninterested in exploring the comic-book movie as a form, even if only to satirize or critique it. As the (highly ambiguous) ending approaches, the identities of the actor and his avian creation sometimes seems to be merging back into one again—a sign either that Riggan has finally stopped regretting and second-guessing his past, or that he’s finally gone completely off his rocker.
But movies don’t have to be perfect to make for exciting viewing, and this one in particular, with its dazzling formal presentation, demands to be seen on the big screen. (In fact, watching it feels, at times, not unlike a ride—a description that was leveled as a criticism at Alfonso Cuarón’s [and Lubezki’s] Gravity last year—but that seems less contemptuous when applied to a film with this much deliberately antic energy.) Keaton rises to the formidable challenge of underacting as an actor who overacts. Norton has one of his funniest roles in years as Mike, a self-serious ham who’s impotent offstage but priapic the minute the curtain rises. And Galifianakis gets a rare chance to play a straight-man role, his earthy presence providing a backdrop for the Keaton character’s frequent bouts of hysteria. The female performers get short shrift in comparison to the male ones, especially Andrea Riseborough, who plays Riggan’s possibly pregnant mistress in a role so underdeveloped you begin to wonder if she’s a figment of his imagination.
Late in the film, as Riggan’s seemingly doomed opening night approaches, he stumbles into a liquor store to buy a bottle of booze as a homeless man (or is it an auditioning actor?) stands on the street bellowing the famous “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech from Macbeth: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/ Who struts and frets his hour upon the stage … ” Birdman does its own share of strutting and fretting during its two hours on the screen: The camera struts while the dialogue frets. There’s also plenty of sound and fury, including a hard-edged percussion score from the drummer Antonio Sanchez. This is no tale told by an idiot—on the contrary, it’s a funny, fast-moving parable about fame and ambition, laid out for us with care and craft by a gifted filmmaker, a long-missed actor, and a world-class cinematographer. But I’m left with the suspicion the whole thing may signify—well, if not nothing, at least a good deal less than the filmmakers would have us believe.
Correction, Oct. 20, 2014: This article originally misstated that 2½ decades had passed since Michael Keaton turned down a $15 million offer to appear in Batman Forever. Keaton refused the role in late 1993 or 1994, making the elapsed time closer to 20 years. (Return.)
Update, Oct. 16, 2014: This review has been updated to reflect that the costumed Birdman is voiced by Michael Keaton but portrayed by an uncredited Benjamin Kanes. (Return.)