Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts &Emma Stone
Written & Directed by: Alejandro Inarritu
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is an actor who is facing a dilemma that frequently befell anyone who played a superhero in either film or television. The ability to find new work after you’ve completed your run seems to be inversely proportional to the popularity to the role that made you rich.
Rather than accept a life of appearing at one entertainment convention (such as the recent New York Comic Con) after another and making easy money by appearing on panels and autographing glossies, Riggan wants to be relevant and not remembered merely for playing a popular cinematic comic book hero, Birdman. To accomplish that end, he helps finance a Broadway show in which he’ll star based on Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
A key reason that “Birdman” has generated a lot of advance buzz is because writer/director Alejandro Inarritu has created a sharp satire of the entertainment industry in much the same manner that the late Robert Altman did over 20 years ago with “The Player.”
Michael Keaton played “Batman” in two films and while he has always found new parts to play he has never been the same kind of A-lister that he was 25 years ago. It’s clear that he sympathizes with Riggan’s travails including hearing the voices of a Birdman alter-ego that urges him to give up this pretentious theater nonsense and put the aviary suit back on to make big dollar Hollywood sequels.
Keaton is not the only actor here who is playing a part that is close to home. Yale-educated Edward Norton, who had a solid theatrical background before making films, is Riggan’s co-star, Mike Shiner, an out-of-control, self-absorbed method actor, who claims that he is only genuine when he is on stage. He sure acts like a sociopath off of it. Mike’s co-star, Lesley (Naomi Watts) is the stereotypical insecure starlet who always winds up in a relationship with guys like Mike.
Adding to Riggan’s stress is the fact that his social media-obsessed daughter, Samantha (Emma Stone), is just out of drug rehab. He feels guilty that he was never there for her because he always put his career first and that’s the reason that he hires her to be his assistant.
Trying to help him cope at the critical juncture are his agent-lawyer-best friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis in a rare subdued straight-man role) and sympathetic ex-wife Sylvia (Flushing native Amy Ryan).
Alejandro Inarritu works hard to make this film feel like a cinema verite documentary similar to the kind that Frederick Wiseman used to make for PBS. It seems as if one camera is following the actors at all times.
There is also authenticity here as the setting for a good chunk of the film is Broadway’s St. James Theater and the streets surrounding it. It is hard not to laugh when Riggan makes an unplanned run through Times Square in a scene that will gladden the hearts of Naked Cowboy fans everywhere. It should be noted however that a number interior scenes were shot at the Kaufman Studios in Astoria.
There is a lot to like about “Birdman” but it’s far from flawless. There are too many scenes feel like you are watching a class at acting studios such as Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner with actors entertaining themselves with the audience being an afterthought. A confrontation with a snooty New York Times theater critic also feels like an actor’s fantasy instead of something that could really happen.
Parents of young children should not be fooled by a film whose title is that of a fictional superhero. There are a lot of epithets hurled around along with a surprisingly graphic scene involving two of the leads.
Overall however “Birdman” is a flight worth taking even if it doesn’t always soar.