Narcissism is part of the actor’s DNA, along with a need to be loved. The best ones understand this themselves, which is one reason why this satire of thespian folly is such fabulously good fun.
Michael Keaton is Riggan Thomson, a has-been Hollywood star best known for playing the superhero Birdman, and attempting to revive his career by appearing on Broadway. Riggan yearns for the respect that he feels he never earned through playing a man dressed as a bird; thus his gamble in directing and starring in his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story.
So the pressure’s on. Whether he delivers or not, the theatre critic who makes and breaks Broadway shows for breakfast – and who hates the presumption of films stars taking to the stage in search of credibility – is set to pounce.
As the play heads towards opening night, Riggan’s emotions run the gamut from excitement to panic, conviction to massive self-doubt, moments of lucidity to fevered flights of fancy. And from our first glimpse of the actor in his dressing room, levitating cross-legged in his underpants while talking to his imaginary Birdman alter-ego, we’re set to pondering whether he actually does have special powers or, much more likely, he’s simply ready to crack.
An hilariously freakish accident at the final rehearsal removes Riggan’s male co-star. He needs a speedy replacement, finding one in Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a terrific stage actor whose presence immediately boosts ticket sales, but also a manipulative cad, who starts messing with Riggan’s head. Naomi Watts plays Lesley, the lead actress and Shiner’s girlfriend, Andrea Riseborough’s Laura completes the on-stage quartet, Zach Galifianakis is Riggan’s put-upon producer and Emma Stone his daughter, Sam, fresh out of rehab and acting as her father’s assistant.
It doesn’t follow that a film about acting will involve good acting, but this one really does, director Alejandro González Iñárritu giving his cast plenty to bite into and spit out with venom, wit and self-effacing bathos.
The script allows electric exchanges between all of them, many of which highlight the fact that Riggan’s crisis comes with the territory. “Why don’t I have any self-respect?” sighs Lesley. “You’re an actress, honey,” answers Laura. Riggan’s ex-wife (Amy Ryan) appears to be the only grounded individual amongst them – unsurprisingly, she’s the only one not involved in showbusiness.
Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams) always injects his films with structural or stylistic distinctiveness, and Birdman is no different. Filming inside an actual Broadway theatre, Iñárritu and his cinematographer (and fellow Mexican) Emmanuel Lubezki use handheld cameras and phenomenal choreography to create long, unbroken shots that follow characters as they charge through the building from one heated exchange to another.
Accompanied by a driving, percussive soundtrack, these sequences are energetic and constantly surprising, the best being when Riggan is inadvertently trapped outside the theatre – again in his underpants – and has to make his way back into the building via a throbbing Times Square. While the restless approach becomes a little repetitive towards the end, overall it’s a bravura piece of filmmaking.
Of the supporting cast, Norton are Stone are especially good, especially in a romantic version of truth or dare. But this inventive, funny, profound film is founded on Keaton’s warts-and-all, face like sandpaper performance, which perfectly illustrates the pointlessness of so much careerist aspiration, thespian or otherwise.
Keaton actually has superhero form – arguably his own career never escaped the caped shadow of his time as Tim Burton’s Batman. But with this turn, the Birdman will see off the Bat once and for all.
This review first appeared in The Sunday Herald