Probably the only truly disappointing thing about Alejandro Innaritu’s Birdman is that we don’t actually get to hear Michael Keaton say, in that oft-imitated voice, “I’m Birdman.” Other than that, this is a technical tour-de-force of a film, deeply absorbing, with a lot of wit and self-awareness. It’s a film that seems entirely original and innovative when you’re watching it, but becomes less so on further reflection. The skill is there, for sure, but when you break down the actual story, the actual arc of the character Keaton plays, it’s been done many times before, and this film has little insight into a familiar cliche. I mention this up front because this is great film, well worth seeing. Any of us fans of comics and original storytelling will love it, and I did, too. But it’s ultimately a clever trick. It isn’t as profound as perhaps it should be.
One thing to clear up right away: this is absolutely a fantasy/satire film, with a lot of magic realism. It doesn’t take place in the real world. This is that oft-romanticized New York theatre world, where critics wear stylish clothes and drink martinis while writing their reviews longhand in a bar. (Did that ever happen? Even in the twenties? I suppose it’s more interesting than the far more realistic cutting to a cluttered office with some stressed-out reporter typing on a laptop) That aspect should be obvious from the very first shot, of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), hovering in his underwear in a Lotus position. Later on, when characters discuss actual events involving real people, such as when Riggan runs down a list of current working actors and films, the viewer could be excused for thinking that this is anything like the real world. But it isn’t. Birdman takes place in its own special universe.
Once you accept that conceit, it’s utterly absorbing. This is never a boring film – it’s constantly in motion, driven by its propulsive percussion score, assertive editing style and the cinematic conceit that it all happens in one continuous take. That fits, because one of the main issues raised here is an homage/critique of the theatre itself, the high/low cultural divide that postmodernism struggles to reconcile. The sheer theatricality of suggesting that this is all one take, with the attendant choreography of actors and sets that requires, is wonderful old-fashioned stuff.
Thomson is a former movie star, now on the wrong side of sixty, who has consciously left behind the world of Hollywood to stage an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in New York. This is meant to be his great artistic rebirth, and he clearly has fallen on hard times. “My health lasted longer than the money. Who would’ve thought, eh?” he says to his ex-wife (played wonderfully by Amy Ryan). Thomson was famous for starring in a series of superhero genre films from the late 1980s and early 1990s titled Birdman. The similarities between Thomson and Keaton himself are too rich to ignore: Keaton was well ahead of the game in terms of superhero franchise movies, and chose to back away from a role he could have played for years, with great financial reward. The difference, in as much as we get any biographical information about Thomson from the years between 1992 and today, is that Thomson never really found another niche. Living a decadent lifestyle in Hollywood, he lost his family, his daughter Sam (played here by Emma Stone, another refugee from a superhero franchise) became a drug addict and now, 20 years later, he’s at rock bottom. His daughter, now sober and working with him but still a pile of millennial snark, hits it right on the head when she screams that this is all just a last-minute desperate bid for respectability. Of course it is. Thomson himself doesn’t even really refute that charge, just grumbles and changes the subject.
Thomson is clearly losing his mind, haunted metaphorically and literally by the ghost of Birdman, who taunts him, goads him and is that ever-present inner critical voice. It’s no surprise whatsoever that Birdman himself shows up late in the film, walking behind Thomson. He’s been there right from the start. Thomson is clearly seeking validation, redemption, forgiveness: all the familiar motivations of a middle-aged man in a Hollywood movie. He doesn’t quite seem to know where he comes down on the great “high-low” debate, however. He did write the Carver adaptation, and is directing it himself (“That’s ambitious,” understates a fellow actor), and he growls about how all the great actors are doing superhero movies now. That’s in fact one of the standout sequences, when Thomson’s stage manager (Zack Galifianakis, strangely perfectly cast) rebuts all of his suggestions for a replacement actor when his co-star is injured:
“He’s doing Hunger Games.”
“What about Fassbinder?”
“How about Jeremy Renner? He was good in Hurt Locker.”
“He’s an Avenger”.
“My God, they got him in a cape, too?!”
But Thomson never truly commits to the theatre like a true believer, as Mike (Edward Norton), the actor he finally gets, demonstrates. Norton is a force of nature here, blasting into the film, dominating it for about 45 minutes and then strangely ducking out for the climax. It’s a knowing throwaway, playing an arrogant, insanely dedicated character actor who is so committed to a role he can only get an erection if he’s on stage, playing a love scene. (“I fake it everywhere except the stage,” he muses, smoking thoughtfully.) Thomson is taken well aback by this younger actor’s wild-eyed commitment to the craft, but soon realizes that he’s using his more famous name to make a name for himself in the media. The last straw is when Mike and Sam are discovered having an affair, another part of the theatre tradition, where the intense period of activity often leads to many a backstage romance. (Thomson himself is carrying on with a much younger co-star, who scares him by raising the possibility of a pregnancy.)
When Thomson is presented with the true face of the theatre, vicious critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), he shows his true colours. Dickinson vows to “destroy” the play out of spite for all the Hollywood stars who think they can come to Broadway and be real actors. She wants to punish them for their hubris, and Thomson simply happens to be in the way. Thomson’s final act of reconciliation, if it can be called that, between his old life and his new, his past and his present, is an act of defiance as much as artistic expression. He wins the personal victory, but the feelings of the film towards its central issue are somewhat muddled.
This is where we get to the fundamental problem with this truly entertaining film: it doesn’t make enough hard choices. Raising the issue of whether actors today are wasting their talent on superhero movies, or more generally that Hollywood has turned into a factory that only produces “Cartoons and Pornography” as Dickinson says, is a great idea. That’s an issue all of us who are interested in popular culture contemplate. But here the issues are voiced and never really addressed, except in such a way as they feed into the main story of middle-aged-man-rediscovers-his-love-for-his-daughter-and-himself. Which has been told by approximately 89,000 TV movies over the years. That isn’t to say that the story isn’t told well here: it is! But for a film with such technical ambition, such obvious artistic skill, it feels like pulling its most effective punch.