I really had to go to see this movie on its release since there has been so much hype and Oscar-buzz in its wake. It seems to be heading for nominations for best film and for best actor for Michael Keaton in a bravura comeback role -- and quite probably for cinematography, best director, best original screenplay, and goodness knows what else as well. But while this film certainly has a great deal going for it, it is more a movie to be admired than to be enjoyed. I would not go so far as to liken it to the proverbial parson's egg, since there many positive things to write about -- however there is some room for a few negative comments.
It's the fifth film from the previously unsmiling Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and undoubtedly his most accessible, since it is well laced with a high degree of black humour. After the heavyweight earlier movies ("Amores Perros", "21 Grams", "Babel" and his major downer "Biutiful") Inarritu flaunts his outsider's viewpoint to give us something of a diatribe against Hollywood and its excesses, while still managing to create a largely entertaining if somewhat mystifying movie, using a host of Hollywood A-list stars.
Michael Keaton, now 63, has never gone away, but he has not been much in evidence of late, except as the voice of Barbie's friend Ken in the third Toy Story flick. However, he is fondly remembered for his early and rather eccentric outings in movies such as "Night Shift", "Beetlejuice", and the first two "Batman" films. He famously declined the third Batman when the franchise began its steep descent before its recent reinvention, and a series of turns as a psychopath marked the start of his own minor eclipse. He is the perfect actor for the role of Riggan in this film, an actor who found fame in three superhero "Birdman" movies but whose career is in the doldrums. He therefore has set out to prove his acting prowess by adapting a Raymond Carver story, financing it, directing it, and starring in it for a Broadway debut. Keaton has famously denied that the film is autobiographical, and I believe him, as he takes on the part with little in the way of false modesty. We see close-ups of his weathered face and his balding pate when his hairpiece is removed.
We first encounter Riggan in his run-down dressing in a state of suspended animation several feet above the floor and he seems to possess other super-powers such as the ability to move objects without touching them and, indeed, to fly. Since Riggan keeps up a running conversation throughout the movie with his Birdman persona (whom we eventually see and who looks nothing like Keaton), one doesn't know how much of his erstwhile glory days with their concurrent powers are real and how much they are a figment of his overwrought mind.
Most of the main cast are also superb. Particular kudos must go to Edward Norton who is brought in to replace an untalented cast member who is seriously injured during rehearsals; he plays the epitome of a big-headed 'method' actor who has definite ideas on how the play can be improved, who thinks it's appropriate to try to screw the leading lady when they are semi-dressed in bed together, and who complains that the prop gun used in the play's final scene is just too unrealistic. One just knows that a real gun will play a part in one of the film's several denouements. Also compliments to Emma Stone, playing Riggan's previously ignored daughter, fresh out of rehab, and acting as his stage assistant. With her big-eyed head and emaciated body (the actress is something of a chameleon in her various roles) she delivers an impressive monologue and plays off Riggan's insecurities and lack of awareness of how the various social media are essential to an actor's 'success' in the modern world. Zach Galifianakis, playing Riggan's best friend and stage manager, proves that he can succeed in a straight role -- a very welcome turnabout from my point of view.
The other main female parts are all fine if slightly underwritten. Naomi Watts is a needy Hollywood star, anxious to prove herself on Broadway. The English actress Andrea Riseborough plays the fourth member of the play's cast and Riggan's would-be lover, who may or may not be pregnant by him. Then there is Amy Ryan as his ex-wife, still concerned for his well-being and his relationship with their daughter. Best of all, however, is Lindsay Duncan as a fierce newspaper critic (think New York Times) who has threatened to trash the show for providing a showcase for over-the-hill Hollywood stars, who exist in a miasma of self-congratulatory award shows for cartoons and cartoon-like heroes, and who think they can prove their worth and acting chops by treading the hallowed boards of Broadway.
Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography for this film has been praised to the hilt. Using a series of carefully edited long takes made to look like one continuous take (which they are not), his camera moves swiftly and dizzingly through the underbelly of the cavernous theatre from scene to scene, leaving the susceptible viewer with a somewhat queasy tummy. I was also not particularly taken with the drum-heavy musical score.
The film's subtitle is 'Or the Unexpected Virtue of Innocence' and I would be hard-pressed to explain this to you. Perhaps it refers to the way that most of the characters go about their business and even manage to succeed without any real idea of what life is really about. Who knows? In many ways the movie is a succession of scenes without much linking logic, but some of these such as Keaton purposely marching through Times Square in his underpants after being locked outside a stage door are a real tour de force. That videos of his march back to the theatre foyer, passing a selection of other costumed 'heroes', subsequently go viral on You Tube, proves Stone's point that 'fame' hinges on many unlikely factors nowadays.
Far be it from me to spoil the movie's final scenes, which go against every expectation, but which don't really make clear whether Riggan has found the success that he so craves or whether he is still living in Birdman's cloud-cuckoo land. Inarritu's film is a welcome change of pace for him, but far from the 'masterpiece' some claim.