Birdman is claustrophobic. Everything is tight, from the shots of the actors’ faces to the corridors backstage at Riggan Thomson’s (Michael Keaton) production of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinemographer Emmanuel Lubezki hound their characters with the camera and rarely cut away. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is presented as a long, uncut fever dream.

Iñárritu’s film about a former superhero actor trying to put on a Broadway show relies heavily on the casting of Michael Keaton. Keaton’s career was never the same after he turned down Batman 3 when Joel Schumacher took over the series from Tim Burton. He took goofy roles in movies like Multiplicity and Jack Frost. Recently there’s been a whole bunch of nostalgia for Keaton’s Batman. Between that and the increasing oversaturation of superhero movies hitting the market, this is the perfect time for a film like Birdman.

Riggan Thomson is desperate to shed his past as Birdman. The role dominates his life to this day, even though he hasn’t put on the costume since 1992. He needs this play to do well. He needs to feel like an actual artist again. The pressure is getting to him as the whole thing spirals into chaos. Keaton plays a very weary Riggan. He’s a lost man going through a mid-life crisis in the form of a major Broadway production. The lines on his face alone tell a story.

The one fanning the flames and helping Riggan burn is Mike Shiner (Ed Norton). He’s brought in when one of the leads suffers some misfortune that may or may not have been caused by the voice in the back of Riggan’s head. Shiner is the well respected Broadway talent that Riggan strives to be. He knows he’s the best on that stage. He has no respect for Riggan’s career.

Ed Norton is fantastically brash as Shiner. Birdman has so much dark humor that you need someone like Norton to pull off this role.  He’s almost a dark humor aficionado at this point after Death to Smoochy and Fight Club. Shiner is a complete asshole, but a damn talented one. Riggan’s production needs him, even if Riggan wants to punch him in the face every 5 minutes. This conflict drives Riggan as he slips further into middle aged madness. Shiner’s lines keep the movie from being a depressing look at a hasbeen. Granted, it’s still kind of depressing, but it could have been way more depressing.

Riggan’s other key relationship is with his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone). Stone’s eyes have never looked as big as they do with Iñárritu’s camera right in her face. Sam is your typical jaded daughter in a lot of ways; resentful of her relationship with her father while leaving just enough of a crack for reconciliation. If anyone in Birdman feels a little cookie cutter, it’s Sam. The rebellious daughter is a fairly common trope for characters like Riggan. Sam isn’t necessarily angry as much as she is dissatisfied. She enters into a relationship with Shiner that feels a little forced. Oddly, it doesn’t freak Riggan out as much as expected, though it certainly plays a role in his ultimate fate (as well as lead to one of the film’s funnier set pieces).

Even if Sam isn’t the strongest character in Birdman, that’s not Stone’s fault. The entire cast is very good, and yes, that includes Zach Galifianakis. It’s great seeing Galifianakis play something other than a developmentally stunted beardo (which he’s quite good at). He’s a perfect complimentary bit of comic relief as Riggan’s long time friend and manager. It feels very natural, as does Amy Ryan as Riggan’s ex-wife, Sylvia. She brings a lot of the same wifely weariness as she did on The Wire. Riggan and Jimmy McNulty should get a drink or twenty some time.

Naomi Watts’ Lesley is primarily around  to supplement Shiner’s increasingly chaotic presence. Her shock and frustration make you realize what a mess he is away from the stage. I wasn’t terribly familiar with Andrea Riseborough going into Birdman, but she left an impression as Riggan’s new lover, Laura. Like Watts, she’s also around to reflect an actor’s off-stage persona, although Riggans isn’t quite as maddening as Shiner. She carries a sad resignation with her, knowing exactly where things are headed.

The audience I saw Birdman with didn’t know what to make of it. The film carries an odd energy with it, mocking superhero movie culture as well as egotistical actors and social media. Your appreciation of dark humor is key to your appreciation of Birdman. Keaton and Norton really embrace it and put everything out there. It can get a bit uncomfortable. The line between what’s real and what’s in Riggan’s head is never clearly defined (nor should it be). Even when the characters leave the theater, it doesn’t feel like they go very far. New York has never felt like such a small big city.



Spoilery Stuff

  • The beak shaped bandage on Riggan’s new nose at the end is a nice visual, although I wonder if it’s a little too on the no- oh dammit.
  • Chekhov would have loved Shiner’s line about the fake gun looking too fake.
  • Ed Norton stage boner!
  • I actually loved the creature design for that bit with the superhero battle mockery. I am part of the teeming masses being mocked in that scene. So be it.