- RatedM18 /GenreComedy
What do you do when you’re a washed-out former superhero movie star?
Why, like Michael Keaton, you make a terrific, stylish and utterly compelling film about a washed-out former superhero movie star.
‘Birdman’, aptly nominated for umpteen Oscars (including Best Picture, Actor and Director), is the kind of film which reminds you of brave insanity amid a great disaster as the walls collapse.
Man, if everyone who ever played a superhero gets a therapeutic deal like this, those million-dollar shrinks in Hollywood would be put out of business.
To be sure, some of those megastars do get mentioned here: A persistently tormenting voice in Keaton’s head – an angry, sinister-sounding projection of id which scolds and mocks him for degenerating into a has-been – puts down Robert Downey Jr (‘Iron Man’) even more in a glib reference.
“That man doesn’t have half your talent and he’s making a fortune in that tin man get-up.”
“Let’s get the hell out of here ….. you’re Birdman,” the voice taunts as imaginary scenes of a giant bird attacking the streets segue in as some kind of existential delusion.
Keaton's Riggan Thomson and his imaginary friend behind him | Photo: Fox Searchlight
It’s very funny and very knowing because ‘Birdman’, directed and co-written by interesting, insightful Mexican director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (‘Babel’, ‘21 Grams'), could be the start of a new trend – the rejuvenating meta-movie which gives faded celebs some sort of catharsis for a greatness long since gone.
READ MORE: Michael Keaton goes from Batman to Birdman
You know, of course, that while Keaton plays an actor here who was once known worldwide for his role as Birdman the blockbuster superhero, in real life, the dude was Batman twice in two Caped Crusader hits, ‘Batman’ (1989) and ‘Batman Returns’ (1992) – all BCB (Before Christian Bale).
Hey, maybe after this terrific black comedy, one-trick wonders who were once, say, iconic Disney princesses, signature cowboys or the best movie butler ever, could get their own interventionist film like this.
And what better way for an actor to reclaim former glory than to stage, direct and act in a play himself where he stands on the stage to bare his insecure soul and figuratively, as that play dictates, put a gun to his head.
It is backstage drama of the most nervous, needy and farcical kind as Keaton plays Riggan Thomson – 60-ish, balding and remembered for nothing except Birdman – who stakes meaning, money and everything on the line to boldly adapt an emo-wrenching Raymond Carver short story – ‘What We Talk about When We Talk about Love’ – into a play on New York’s Broadway.
Riggan’s plight is made more urgent by the expert rendering here, which makes the film look like it is composed of only one single, longish camera take.
The camera weaves into the bowels of the theatre as though everything behind the scenes is taking place “live” right before us.
Woody Allen on steroids wouldn’t be able to achieve this.
And you must watch out for the very nutty but clever “underwear scene” which bares more than just an inadequately covered soul.
The play Riggan stages in the film is so withering it has “I don’t exist; I’m not even here” as its line of guiding philosophy, which dovetails hysterically into his anxious state of mind.
He has to face the crucial make-or-break week for critics and reviewers watching the pre-shows and he turns into a veritable nutcase, exasperated over challenges such as the very difficult leading man (Edward Norton is spot-on as an artistic jerk), the neurotic, jumpy actress (Naomi Watts), the pot-smoking, emotionally-estranged daughter-assistant of his (Emma Stone exuding languid coolness), and the general lack of belief and self-confidence in himself as he takes a final stab at being relevant as somebody famous.
Michael Keaton and Emma Stone in 'Birdman' | Photo: Fox Searchlight
You know that old debate about movie actors seeking credibility and recognition as stage actors to whom the honour of being “real actors” is usually conferred? That comes to a hilarious head here in the film’s weakest characterisation – a mythically fearsome theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) with the power to kill a play before it even opens (no, such omnipotence only exists in North Korea).
Riggan yearns for his ego to be stroked and significance to be restored. To reflect this state of anxiety, the actor must fidget quite a lot and, believe me, no one is better at playing fidgety than the remarkable Keaton.
He is the ticks, the jitters, the nerves, the verve and the searching spirit personified as he fills every scene here as if this film is subliminally really about Michael Keaton, the real actor, himself.
Occasionally when he moves objects telepathically or flies like an eagle in Inarritu’s moments of imaginary magical realism, you truly believe he can do those things.
Or at least, he wills himself to believe.
Is 'Birdman' an artful indictment of a pointless, artless superhero culture, a satire about Hollywood versus Broadway, or a statement about vanity being preserved in vain?
Probably all of the above.
But it is mostly about Michael Keaton soaring higher than any bird.
‘Birdman' (or 'The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance') is now showing