Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is in need of a hit. He turned down Birdman 4 years ago and now he is largely considered washed-up. Desperate for some sense of relevance in the decades since Birdman, and against the better judgment of his agent, Riggan mounts an adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. There is no sooner way back to prestige than by adapting, directing and starring in an acclaimed play.
Months into production and this grand comeback is already one foot into the grave. Riggan is dipping into his own funds to keep the show going and now one of the four leads is injured. A replacement arrives in the form of Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a thespian so method that he would make Kirk Lazarus blush if he were real. Shiner appears to be just what Riggan's production needs on paper, but even the most superficial Hollywood icon has nothing on a stage diva. Throw in a daughter fresh out of rehab (Emma Stone) and Riggan's costumed past brought to life, and he is left scrambling to fix one disaster after another before the Saturday night premiere. If that weren't enough, lurking just around the corner is The New York Times critic who has the power to kill the play before it even starts with a scathing review.
A film depicting the inside baseball nature of fame can quickly get too meta for its own good, however it absolutely works here. The farce on display is enhanced by having Michael Keaton and Edward Norton play with their respective parodies of themselves. Batman lingers in Keaton's past, but Thompson's alter-ego hounds him every step of the way to remind him that his way back to the A-list is back in L.A. And Norton, who has a history of being difficult to work with steals several scenes as the consummate thespian.
Keaton also plays the monstrously uninhibited ego that is Birdman, growling that audiences "love action... not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit." The script written by Iñárritu and three others captures the anguish present in the souls of creatives, though mostly it lasers in on fame as a siren that calls to only the most needy and dysfunctional. It is a narrow tightrope walk of insanity, but Iñárritu and Keaton balance it well, creating a rabid, mescaline-tinged update of 8 1/2 for the 21st Century.
Birdman is undeniably an actor's showcase requiring actors to recite pages of dialogue at a time while hitting precisely choreographed marks, yet the real star might be the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki. Lubezki's camera hovers and roams around the veins of the St. James Theatre assisted by editing and special effects to appear as a one-take that last nearly two hours. Sleight of hand this clever will get flak for being a gimmick, but it works because it mirrors Riggan's state of mind: Life is a performance and the camera is never not rolling. The drawback here is that the camera isn't always rolling on Riggan. Birdman succeeds when it lasers in on Riggan, but too many side-plots get in the way. Iñárritu wants the satire to stick, but when a film is stocked with this much farce, even Hollywood insiders could shrug off the crazed antics of Riggan's co-stars.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the man behind Babel, 21 Grams and Biutiful, has a track record for dealing in misery. Whereas those three films felt like slow asphyxiation, Birdman is aware of the insanity going on and responds with a wink and knowing laugh. The three leads of Keaton, Norton and Stone throw themselves headfirst into their parts and the comedy is considerably richer for it. Stone, in particular, is able to take a stock character like the rebellious daughter and round it out into something human. Fully expect to Academy to fall head over heels in love with Birdman. For his tour de force turn as Riggan Thompson Michael Keaton is now receiving high marks after coming back from relative hiatus. I am endlessly amused by life's ability to mimic fiction.