One of the more intriguing movies of the fall is coming to Asheville this weekend with Birdman. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film has received most of its publicity for being a presumed comeback vehicle for Michael Keaton, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars through the 1980s and early ’90s.
Naturally, a story about a formerly world-famous actor known best for playing a costumed superhero trying to resuscitate his artistic credibility with a prestige project intended to display his serious creative talents raises some eyebrows for the parallels it draws with Keaton’s career.
Keaton, of course, played Batman in two films with Tim Burton, essentially beginning the wave of superhero comic book adaptations that fill up our movie and TV screens these days. But after 1992’s Batman Returns, Keaton stepped away from the role (likely anticipating the campier turn that Warner Bros. and Joel Schumacher were taking with the character) and sort of went into movie star obscurity. Following leading roles in films like The Paper (1994) and Multiplicity (1996), Keaton seemed to settle on occasional supporting roles while checking out of the big-time Hollywood game.
Riggan Thomson, Keaton’s character in Birdman, took a more inglorious path with his career. He became an international star for playing costumed superhero Birdman, but after turning down “Birdman 4,” found that he wasn’t taken very seriously as an actor. His relationships with his wife (Amy Ryan) and daughter (Emma Stone) fell apart as he lived with his failures and tried to keep his career alive. That leaves him a rather desperate man as he attempts a revival by staging a production of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love on Broadway.
Thomson is plagued with self-doubt as the production goes through rehearsals and previews. Those insecurities manifest as a deep voice he hears in his head, one which tells him that he shouldn’t be slumming on the stage, but starring in another Hollywood blockbuster. That’s what people want, and those people love him. In perhaps the film’s best sequence, that voice is eventually embodied by the costumed superhero Thomson from which he’s spent years trying to separate himself.
Those insecurities are magnified when he has to hire a well-known actor (presumably on stage and screen) named Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who has no regard for what this play represents to Thomson. Nor does he get what it means to his co-star and former lover, played by Naomi Watts, who also seeks credibility with her first Broadway role. Shiner is the archetypal diva who sees What We Talk About When We Talk About Love as another star vehicle for himself as he sucks most of the money from the production (not just for his salary but perks such as a tanning bed in his dressing room) and adoration from publications like the New York Times.
But it’s the film itself that gives us insight into Thomson’s state of mind. Iñárritu employs long takes that follow the characters and their dialogue through the many turns of the backstage and dressing room areas of the theater. (You may find yourself wondering where exactly Iñárritu and his crew made cuts as the action progresses.) Antonio Sanchez’s score provides further indication of Thomson’s fragile hold on reality with music that’s almost entirely percussion driven. This guy has a constant, piercing drumbeat going on his head.
So what is Birdman really all about? If you’re like me, you may ask yourself that question several times during the film and afterwards. Perhaps that’s the wrong question to ask, because there is just so much going on here.
Iñárritu seems to be commenting frequently on how superhero franchises have overtaken the film world, leaving fewer opportunities for directors, actors and writers to tell more realistic, personal stories. There’s also an analysis of criticism’s role in art. Should critics be the gatekeeper to a supposedly more serious undertaking like theater being invaded by banal movie stars seeking relevance? Should they have control over a project’s success or failure? Or this ultimately a story of one man’s descent into madness as his life loses purpose?
There aren’t any right or wrong answers, just what you see from your point of view. To me, that speaks to how rich a film Birdman is and what a thrilling experience it is to watch it. This may be too surreal and idiosyncratic to win a Best Picture Oscar, but that doesn’t mean it can’t earn a nomination. Nor does it mean that it’s not one of the best movies you’ll see this year. Don’t deprive yourself of hanging out in Thomson’s mindspace for two hours.