Batman’s Michael Keaton Soars in Birdman as An Actor on the Mend

A once-popular actor (Keaton) tries to outrun his past glory

A once-popular actor (Keaton) tries to outrun his past glory in Birdman

Birdman proves that a movie—the grabbiest, most kinetic film ever made about putting on a play—can soar on the wings of its own technical prowess, even as the banality of its ideas threatens to drag it back down to earth.

The movie’s just plain fun to watch. Its star, Michael Keaton, is someone everyone likes, an actor who made millions on Batman and then settled for a smaller level of fame. Already, Keaton has gotten a career reboot out of Birdman, and he’s a cinch for an Academy Award nomination.

The visual conceit of Birdman is simple yet striking. It unfolds in long takes, stitched together to lend the impression of a sustained backstage, onstage, above-stage and streetscape diary of a movie star in rehearsal and in panic mode. The story spans several days en route to opening night on Broadway.

For better or worse, Birdman is a movie in which things happen to and around the faded movie star at its center, as opposed to a narrative propelled by the character. Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a fictionalized version of himself. Thomson is adapting, directing and starring in a stage version of the Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” thick with the themes of ego, suicide, love, ex-spouses and regret.

The gods appear to be against his endeavor. An actor gets conked on the head during a rehearsal, Thomson is forced to recast the role. Another cast member, played by Naomi Watts, has an angle on nabbing a famous Method actor (played by Edward Norton, sending up his own difficult reputation with aplomb) on short notice. He’s in, and before long he’s lecturing Thomson.

As Thomson’s final preview performances careen from disaster to disaster, Birdman flies all over the place, its place being Broadway’s St. James Theatre in midtown Manhattan. Scenes are placed in the catwalks above the stage, in various dressing rooms and in tentative interludes between Norton and Emma Stone, the latter playing Thomson’s daughter, still smarting over how little her dad was around.

Birdman sounds a chorus of actorly insecurities, populated by lost souls and their fragile yet monstrously scaled egos. Throughout the film, the masked and winged superhero Thomson once played in the movies mumbles insults or provocations in his ear and eventually makes an on-screen appearance.
Formally bold but thematically timid, it sells a familiar line of goods and it goes easy on its main character. Thomson, we’re told, cheated on his wife and wasn’t much of a father, but, well, whatever.
The verbal wit cannot possibly compete with the things the camera’s doing. The actor runs through Times Square in his underwear in Birdman; more challengingly, he wrestles with soul-searching dialogue passages, mixing it up with his skeptical producer (Zach Galifianakis) or gauging his own feelings regarding his actress lover of the moment (Andrea Riseborough).

If you crave a black comedy of serious nerve and truly abrasive wit, also dealing with an egocentric artist, Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip opens this weekend along with Birdman. If you want a movie that settles for somewhat less but is nonetheless a living, breathing, rollicking endeavor, Birdman is your specimen.

Birdman (R): ★★★✩✩