Just when I start to get sad about the number of sequels that are clogging the box office, Michael Keaton returns from cinematic hibernation and puts a big ol’ smile on my face. Birdman is a weird, fantastic, manic movie, and it means more movies like it will still, somehow, get made.
Keaton is superb. Generally speaking, of course. Specifically speaking, he’s made for this movie. Even if director Alejandro Iñárritu is a little cagey (Ha! Cagey! This is a free blog post!) about whether or not he and his co-writers wrote it for Keaton, it’s clear that no one else could have played this role, or related to this role, or deserved this role, or had basically emotionally lived Riggan’s life. (Speaking of Cagey, I am now picturing Nicolas Cage as Riggan, and it is horrific and amusing. Do the same, and then feel relieved knowing that Keaton got the gig.) Keaton once was Batman, once was only recognized for one role, once wasn’t even really himself. This movie really is a new form of meta-high-art – Riggan represents Keaton’s career trajectory, but Riggan is also a new kind of character himself, one that’s so real and truthful even when his story is about another movie and play.
As Riggan reemerges from his Birdman past and tries to get his Broadway play made, he drags along a bunch of other people. I say “along” and not “down” because no one is really hurt by Riggan, but he doesn’t make life easier for them, either. Edward Norton, as his self-important costar Mike, also shines. He’s such a slight man, but in this role you forget about his stature because he’s even larger than Keaton. Whatever humility Keaton breathes into Riggan, Norton exhausts it out of Mike. And the way he treats Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Sam (Emma Stone), another co-star and Riggan’s daughter, respectively, is so appalling, but evokes such strong performances from Watts and Stone, that it’s a wonder Norton hasn’t been called upon to play more despicable people. Or maybe he has and I don’t know about it because I haven’t see every movie he’s been in. I’ll get right on that. Maybe more surprising than Ed Norton being a dick was Zach Galifianakis, Riggan’s right-hand man Jake, being an understated, sincere softie. He commands the least amount of attention ever in this movie, and it’s sort of refreshing to know he’s got that tense, nervous character in his back pocket.
Much has been said about the long shots in this movie — how most of what you’re watching feels like a continuous day, or even a continuous scene — so I won’t say too much about that. It’s cool to experience on the big screen, though, and it gives a new perspective to a movie that is about a play and sort of feels like a play. It’s a much more graceful way to shoot something theatrical (especially if you compare it to something like the Les Mis movie, which was certainly pretty but felt off on a screen), and a unique way of shooting a movie that’s not really like anything else. Early on, it’s hinted at that Riggan has some of Birdman’s superpowers, or maybe Riggan is Birdman. Who knows? The fluidity adds a certain mysticism, and for lack of a better term, drives the “full circle” element of the story home. Riggan’s world is real, but maybe a little bit fake, too, and that makes it all the more beautiful.