'Birdman' wavers tonally and embraces self-actualization cliches

'Birdman' stars Michael Keaton as a washed-up actor best known for playing a superhero who's now trying to seek redemption on Broadway.

Alison Rosa/Fox Searchlight/AP
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) and Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) are stage actors who butt heads in ‘Birdman.’

In “Birdman,” the black comedy directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Michael Keaton is Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor who scored decades before as a winged movie superhero and has never been able to escape his baleful celebrity. As movie stars, faded or otherwise, are wont to do, Riggan seeks his redemption on Broadway. As the director, adapter, financer, and star of a show staged at the venerable St. James Theatre and based on a Raymond Carver short story, he wants to do something that he, at long last, can be proud of.

Keaton, of course, was the original movie Batman, and, gifted as he is, his subsequent acting career has been decidedly hit-or-miss (mostly miss). His casting as Riggan inevitably carries thick overtones from his own career. The entire film, which is being hailed as a commentary on the perils of fame and ambition, is very meta.

Expertly filmed by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity”) to simulate one sinuously continuous shot, the movie wavers tonally in and out of backstage Broadway farce, literal flights of fancy, and realism both hard-bitten and magical. (A jazz drumbeat, courtesy of Antonio Sanchez, is the film’s propulsive obbligato, along with snatches of Mahler and Rachmaninoff, for that glorioso effect.) Fantasizing he can levitate objects, Riggan is shadowed by his Birdman character, which he alone can see and who is also played by Keaton, who taunts him for his artistic ambitions.

Along for the ride are the show’s lead actress, Lesley (Naomi Watts); her celebrated actor boyfriend, Mike (Edward Norton); and their costar Laura (Andrea Riseborough). Riggan’s you-never-had-time-for-me-growing-up daughter, Sam (a fine Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab, is his caustic personal assistant. Zach Galifianakis is Riggan’s loyal lawyer and producer. Together they constitute a randy cadre of yammerers whose carnal hookups essentially go nowhere. 

For a movie that is supposed to be about the nature of fame and the perils of artistic ambition, “Birdman,” which Iñárritu co-wrote with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo, never makes the case that Riggan had a talent worth redeeming. Are we supposed to think he was a great actor done in by Hollywood, which made it impossible for him to do “meaningful” work? But, as even “Birdman” acknowledges, there are numerous examples of terrific actors, such as Robert Downey Jr. and Michael Fassbender, who have been able to straddle that fence. Mainlining glib pathos, “Birdman” posits a showbiz world where commercial and artistic success must be mutually exclusive.

Is Riggan even a good actor? The snippets of him acting onstage in the Carver show (based on his classic story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love") reveal a fidgety ham. Why, then, should we care about the ambitions of a mediocre actor with delusions of artistic grandeur? We might indeed care with a different kind of movie – more Chekhovian than this meta-muddle that tries to have it every which way. Wised-up as it tries to be, “Birdman” nevertheless thumps for the hoariest clichés about self-actualization. Riggan must learn to love himself before he can learn to love others. For a movie that, in a rooftop scene between Sam and Mike, takes a swipe at Oprah’s pseudo-profundities, this is pretty rich. 

Keaton doesn’t pull out the stops, which is probably a good thing, but his tightly controlled, indrawn performance has its fair share of blahness. He is getting praised in the press for not disguising his thinning hairline or his wrinkles – in other words, for being “truthful.” But this sort of exposure is literally skin-deep (and, by the way, represents a species of actor’s vanity – the vanity of no vanity – that is often garlanded with Oscars). Norton is much livelier, and his character more complicated: Mike is a poseur who is also the real deal. His bullying script suggestions are always spot on.

“Birdman” pretends to be very “knowing” about the state of Broadway and of Hollywood, and yet it’s often tone-deaf. Movie stars sell tickets on Broadway all right, but not all of them are seeking redemption. Some of them just want to act on Broadway. And Broadway has been the siren call for movie actors ever since movies were invented. What doesn’t ring true here is the way the audience oohs and aahs – rightly, we are made to feel – at scenes from the Carver play that make us wince. (For this sort of thing, I much prefer “The Producers.”) There is also a scene in which the chief New York Times drama critic (Lindsay Duncan) tells Riggan that, without having even seen it in preview, she will “kill” his play because he represents everything she hates about the current celebrity-pandering state of theater.

This comes off like a preemptive strike against all those critics who might have the temerity to take aim at “Birdman,” a movie with ambitions as high-flying as its superhero but a success rate decidedly lower to the ground. Grade: C+ (Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content, and brief violence.)

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