Alongside Ben Affleck’s ‘first they like me, then they hate me, now they love me’ antics of David Fincher’s Gone Girl, Michael Keaton’s casting in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman may be one of the most inspired, on-the-nose pieces of casting in recent memory. Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a former blockbusting star of superhero franchise Birdman who is desperate to find a semblance of respect by taking to Broadway to direct and star in an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. All this from Michael Keaton, the star of two mammoth blockbuster Batman movies.
Over the course of the film, which takes us from a last minute bit of recasting, in the shape of method actor Mike Shiner, a wonderfully on-song, arrogant but deeply flawed Edward Norton, through to the final preview night Riggan will be forced to look at himself hard in the mirror and ask what it’s all about. He isn’t alone in his journey though. There’s recently out of rehab daughter Sam – Emma Stone giving a perfectly balanced performance of dry wit and damaged warmth – pushy producer Zack Galifianakis, on understated but hugely enjoyable form, and numerous others including insecure leading lady Naomi Watts and on-off-fling Andrea Riseborough.
But Riggan’s biggest issue is his own ego that takes on the form of Birdman himself. Birdman wants Riggan back in the suit plaguing the already strained actor to his limit with Keaton’s graveled tones constantly bombarding him with suggestions on his life and career. So self-obsessed is Riggan that he and Birdman have convinced him that he has actual superpowers, from quite literal flights of fancy to telekinetic abilities.
The film is impossible to pigeonhole – excuse the bird pun – it’s a smart, philosophical musing on how we present ourselves. It’s easily one of the year’s funniest films with rarely a scene passing that doesn’t make you laugh out loud. There is a Freudian sense of analysis going on of everyone on offer. But in particular Riggan and Mike come under the microscope, their egos almost literally writing cheques their bodies can’t cash. So Mike is borderline impotent off-stage but the minute he gets on it he’s aroused. Because off-stage he doesn’t feel alive, he needs the attention and adoration of an audience to feel anything. Riggan meanwhile is a man so wrapped up in his own self-worth, and doubt, that he bulldozers his way over all those around him. At one point his ex-wife, played with almost alienating rationale in the context of the film by Amy Ryan, tells him he mistakes adoration for love. And therein lays the crux of these thespians; that as people, whether we like it or not, we need affirmation from others; we crave someone telling us we’re worthy. It may be as far removed as tonally as possible from Iñárritu’s previous works of Babel and 21 Grams but there remains a sense of connectivity between us all, that sense that no matter our backgrounds we all share the same emotions, we all bleed the same insecurities.
There is a point towards the final third of the film, just before Riggan takes flight in the final moments of his breakdown, when he encounters a New York play critic, played with puckered venom by Lindsay Duncan, who tells him he’s not an actor, he’s a celebrity. In an era in which The Kardashians are labeled as ‘celebrities’ can anything be more scathing than this comment? It’s a sucker-punch of a moment and a poignant one in Riggan realising just how far gone his credentials are. And as if to ram the point home the Oscar nominated likes of Michael Fassbender, Jeremy Renner and Robert Downey Jr. are all named-checked as highly thought of actors who have sold out to don a cape or ‘tin-man’ costume. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that Iñárritu could have had any of these happily cameo in the film to reaffirm the current state of superhero over-load Hollywood finds itself in.
And on top of all this Iñárritu’s vision is spectacular, executing the entire film near seamlessly in the concept of a single shot. So as Riggan goes about his life we follow him and the characters around him in one long tracking take, through the confines of the claustrophobic hallways of back-stage, into the drab and dreary dressing rooms, the belly of the theatre where the musty costumes hang before, like Riggan himself, liberating us onto the wide-open stage and, especially towards the end, the great outdoors of New York, complete with strategically placed superheroes be them Time Square’s Spider-Man or a Man Of Steel poster in the background. It’s inventive, inspiring and the kind of directorial effort that makes even the master craftsmen sit up and take notice.
Because in putting us in such close proximity to Riggan’s world we become part of it, not so much fly-on-the-wall documentary but rather deeply immersed in his sense of being. Even when we occasionally stray from his side, to follow Sam or Mike, we’re still invested in ways films as funny and smart as this rarely find time to muster. It’s visually so inventive, with Iñárritu’s camera making the cuts almost completely invisible but never compromising the lush look director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki’s, here doing for theatre what he did for space in last year’s Gravity, practical lighting.
While Iñárritu and Lubezki dazzle our eyes and the script captures and analyses the imagination it is Keaton who brazenly steals our hearts. His Riggan is a mess, but a glorious one and one in which it’s near impossible not to both love and judge in equal measure. Yes he’s egotistical, making nearly everything about himself, but beyond that he’s fragile and pathetic and desperate to feel worthy. What makes it all the more painful is when he encounters members of the public, they still love him but for Birdman and little else he’s done, including the ill-advised comedy he did with Whoopi Goldberg. It’s in these smartly subversive moments when you realise that Riggan, while an extreme version, is like anyone else, he’s looking for the unobtainable, the George Clooney ability to be both publicly loved and critically adored. In one moment Keaton name checks Clooney with a heartbreaking smile on his face commenting that he was on the same flight as him when they hit turbulence and he realised that he wouldn’t be the cover story, Clooney would be.
Hard to ignore, impossible to forget Birdman will undoubtedly ruffle some feathers but it will also make you laugh, think and ultimately fly higher than most films dare making it essential viewing.