Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a meta-satire of actors, acting, critics and comic book movies. It was shot in the real-life St. James Theater in New York in what is made to look like a single take. It is also incredibly fun — watching top-flight actors scream and yell and kiss and punch, as they zip through narrow hallways, back and forth from the stage to their dressing rooms.
Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a former big-screen superhero who has mortgaged everything to write, direct and star in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Thomson “is about to destroy what’s left” of his career, according to the voice in his head. That’s Birdman, the comic book hero played by Thomson in three blockbuster movies. Keaton’s Birdman voice is a just-right goof on Christian Bale’s Batman. Keaton played Batman first and best. Thomson is aiming for a comeback. Keaton might be, too. There are a lot of layers to unpack.
Thomson is dealing with a lot of shit and personalities — his producer (an understated Zach Galifianakis), a pretentious theater actor (Edward Norton), a high-maintenance actress (the ageless Naomi Watts), his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), his ex-wife (Amy Ryan), his straight from rehab daughter (Emma Stone) and an iconoclastic theater critic (Lindsay Duncan).
Norton, another survivor of comic book movies, threatens to steal this one from Keaton. His character sees Thomson as a big-budget interloper crashing the New York stage. Norton plays a brilliant actor who acts brilliantly during rehearsals and the play. It is a stunning performance inside a performance. Norton was once the best actor of his generation. His first six films were Primal Fear (1996), the musical Everyone Says I Love You (1996), The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), Rounders (1998), American History X (1998) and Fight Club (1999). He received Academy Award nominations for Primal Fear and X. By 2008, he was the The Incredible Hulk.
Stone deserves better than playing the lead girl in the last two Spider-Man movies. She is an interesting actress, with a husky voice and big, expressive eyes — made even bigger by the camera work of director Alejandro Inarritu.
Inarritu’s movies — 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful — have been real downers. Not this one. He directs with excitement and confidence, and he co-wrote the smart, snappy dialogue. Inarritu is complemented by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life, Gravity). The score is by Antonio Sanchez, and it’s all drums. When Keaton navigates Times Square in his underwear or rushes to the stage on opening night, Inarritu shows the drummers as they pound out the score. Birdman is full of these little bits of fantasy — Thomson trashing his dressing room by moving objects kinetically, Birdman stalking Thomson down the street. “Let’s go back one more time and show them what you’re capable of,” Birdman says. “There you go, you motherfucker.”
Keaton and Bill Murray were the most influential comic actors of the 1980s. Keaton’s performance as manic, fast-talking Bill Blazejowski in Night Shift was a touchstone for many actors. They are both in their mid-60s now. Murray plays it safe in St. Vincent, also in theaters. It is the first touching movie from Murray. It leads with the heart. Keaton is leading with his balls.