At the beginning of the new comic/drama Birdman – full title Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – you see a shot of a falling comet about to crash and burn. It’s a quick image and one you might forget seconds after the seemingly single, two-hour tracking shot begins; but later, when you look back at everything you now know, the visual metaphor suddenly makes sense. Like that falling comet, Riggan Thomson’s acting career is crashing and burning.
Thomson (Michael Keaton) was once a famous Hollywood actor. He was Birdman, a big screen superhero with superpowers who could actually fly, but that time has long gone, and even though audiences still appear to want to see the actor don that infamous black costume with wings and a mask for a fourth Birdman adventure, Thomson’s not interested. He wants to prove his worth. He needs to feel relevant, and his intended comeback has nothing to do with the movies. Like many actors whose ultimate dream is to appear in a Broadway play then eventually take it to London’s West End to make that opening night magic happen all over again, Thomson wants to be on the stage.
Thomson continually insists that it was author Raymond Carver who inspired him to become an actor in the first place, and now the one-time Hollywood star is going to use one of Carver’s short stories as a means of finally proving his acting chops. The chosen work is What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a short story of four people sitting around a table talking about – just as the title suggests – love. On the table is a bucket of ice and in the ice stands a bottle of gin. Those familiar with the short story should revel in the brief adapted scenes portrayed in Birdman, including the newly invented gun-to-the-head conclusion written into the play, plus the fact that one of the actors, Mike (Edward Norton) in his ever annoying attempt to find the honesty in every scene, gets drunk by drinking from a real gin bottle while on stage.
The bulk of the action takes place in and around Broadway’s St. James Theatre during preview week. Thomson’s vanity project – he’s the writer, the director and the star – is already falling apart. When Edward Norton’s Mike is hired at the last minute after an on-stage accident results with a cast member’s exit, box-office sales leap, but despite his talent, Mike is nothing short of a massive, theatrical headache. When Thomson rants against Mike for his unprofessional behavior during a packed preview and his on-stage outburst of having that bottle of gin removed, Mike dismisses both the incident and the audience. “Those people paid half price to watch a rehearsal,” he declares.
But despite the endless litany of problems Thomson is enduring with the disastrous previews, not to mention those with his cast, his lawyer and his daughter, the real problem is Thomson’s state of mind. The deep throated voice of his Birdman character continually speaks to him, questioning why the actor is even attempting Broadway when a Hollywood superhero character is calling, plus Thomson appears to be able to move objects by thought, levitate when meditating and fly when thinking back to his Birdman days. In truth, he’s doing none of those things, but everything we see and hear is done from Thomson’s point of view and to our alarm, he might actually believe he has the power of telekinesis.
When the film version of Broadway favorite Les Miserables was released, much was made of the hype regarding how the actors sang live in front of the camera while performing and emoting. This prompted a remark from Neil Patrick Harris when hosting the Tonys stating that actors on Broadway don’t require close-ups to prove they’re singing live: they do it eight shows a week! Despite the comment’s snarky observance, it’s also undeniably true. Plus, the movie hype never mentioned that if a big screen Les Miz singer ruined the live rendition, there was the retake before shouting print, something a Broadway performer will never know the luxury of having. This leads us to consider the following.
Even though Birdman is a film, its continual tracking style of making everything appear as though the action takes place in one, long continuous take ensures that the actors here have to perform before the camera in the way a theatre actor has to perform in front of a live audience; in long, continuous, unbreakable flows. Like a live production, the judgment of a performance comes directly from the actor. There are no edits, cutaways or reaction shots to give the moment that added sense of drama; it’s all there, before you. And here the performances are uniformly top-notch.
Michael Keaton’s manic, rapid-fire delivery backed by a seemingly permanent nervous tick is there both back in the dressing room and when he’s on stage as Thomson acting in his own play, yet you can see an immediate dividing line between the two as he switches from one to the other. On stage he’s a mediocre actor with a mannered delivery, when off he embodies Riggan Thomson to such a convincing degree that by default you might be thinking you’re really seeing the real Michael Keaton, particularly in light of the fact that Keaton’s real life big screen career hit a high with Batman then seemed to tank once he said no to sequels. It wasn’t quite like that, but it may be impossible for some to shake that notion from their mind when watching him wander the backstage hallways of St. James as if the theatre was a never-ending maze, facing conflict after conflict as he goes.
The support is also first class, from Ed Norton’s indulgent, obsessive actor always in search of the truth of the scene but having no clue of acceptable behavior when off-stage, to Andrea Riseborough’s likable Laura. There’s also Lindsay Duncan’s New York Times’ theatre critic and her negative attitude of Hollywood movie stars hired for Broadway marquee value, Zac Galifiankis’ surprisingly effective turn as Thomson’s lawyer, and Naomi Watts as the epitome of a performer hungry for Broadway but full of doubts. “Why don’t I have any self-respect?” she asks. “Because you’re an actor,” comes the reply.
The revelation, however, is Emma Stone as Thomson’s daughter, Sam. This is the performance of her career, beyond a doubt. The scene where she finally unloads, telling him, “You’re not important, okay? Get used to it!” is stunning. It’s not just the delivery; it’s after the tirade when we see the look of hurt, not anger in her eyes that grabs your attention. Plus, the irony of the casting should not escape you, either. Besides Keaton’s Batman, Ed Norton was Hollywood’s Hulk while Stone’s career was given that A-lister boost with the recent Spiderman reboots.
Birdman probably won’t succeed with mainstream audiences. It’s art-house style not to mention the subject matter of east coast versus west – here being the division between Hollywood and Broadway – may not be fully appreciated by those with only a casual interest. The more you know about both the movies and theatre going in, the more you’ll get out of it. It doesn’t altogether exclude outsiders but it doesn’t hold your hand, either. Plus the ambiguous ending of Thomson’s fate in the final scene will divide. Logic dictates the obvious, but the film takes its own flight of fancy. It’s the kind of ending that is sure to inspire discussions and debates, and that’s all part of the fun. But one thing’s for sure when trying to decipher the significance of the fade out; like that falling meteor during the opening seconds of the film, you’ll suspect it’s not only Thomson’s career that has crashed and burned.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 119 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)