Riggan Thomas, played by Michael Keaton, is alone in his dressing room. Dressed in nothing but his whitey tighties, he floats cross-legged a few feet above the ground. Everything is quiet as this big-screen celeb turned Broadway star attempts to focus on his breathing and clear his mind … until a booming voice from the furthest reaches of his mind shatters the peace. “It smells like balls!”
What’s ‘Birdman’ About?
Thomas is literally haunted by the foulmouthed “don’t take crap from no one” ghost of his superhero past. In the world of Birdman, people know him for playing a comic book hero adapted into a blockbuster movie franchise in the same vein as Batman. The voice of Birdman even has the growl-y “I’ve been smokin’ a pack a day since I was 12” kind of timbre. But that was years ago, and now Riggan wants to show the world that he’s an actor of substance, not just a celebrity. So, he puts his entire career on the line and funnels all of his remaining resources into opening a Broadway show, an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which he wrote, directs and also stars in.
But, as the opening scene perfectly depicts, this is the least of his stresses. The guy is becoming unhinged. Nobody recognizes him for anything other than Birdman and he hears nothing but talk of comic book-inspired movie franchises all day – I think we can all relate to that. There’s a great scene in which Riggan needs to find a replacement when one of his actor’s gets hit over the head by a piece of falling lighting equipment, and he runs down a shortlist of names. Woody Harrelson? He’s doing The Hunger Games. Michael Fassbender? He’s doing the sequel to the prequel of X-Men. Jeremy Renner? He’s Hawkeye in The Avengers. All that combined is a minor grievance to the voice he constantly hears in his head.
It’s the voice of Birdman. In his journey towards mental instability, Riggan’s former movie persona has taken on a life of its own and he’s tired of all the shit with “going viral” and that one cold theatre critic who’s threatening to unspool Riggan’s efforts in one scathing review. It’s been awhile since I had this much fun watching and laughing at a man losing his marbles, to be honest.
Who’s In It?
Michael Keaton is a great choice for the role, and not just because his actual career will no doubt draw comparisons to Riggan’s – he, of course, didn’t take that plunge into madness, but he knows a thing or two about what it means to establish himself as an actor after playing a major comic book character onscreen. (To this day, fans still scream out “Batman!” when they see Michael Keaton at Comic-Con.) Michael Keaton’s also surrounded by a number of faces that have all had some part to play in a major geek-themed franchise: Edward Norton, who played The Hulk/Bruce Banner, portrays the crazed wildcard of an actor who steps in to replace the one who got injured; Emma Stone, who played Gwen Stacey in The Amazing Spider-Man franchise, is Riggan’s fresh-out-of-rehab daughter/personal assistant; and Naomi Watts (King Kong) plays the lead actress making her Broadway debut in Riggan’s play. Then there’s Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s lawyer/best friend, and a member of another great franchise, The Hangover.
These aspects will certainly tickle you as the cool pieces of trivia that they are, but there’s more at play here. Michael Keaton does a great job in getting down to the essence of Riggan, which is that he’s erratic and totally freaked out that he might lose everything if his play gets bad reviews. And Norton’s Mike Shiner, who comes in and the first thing he does is “fix” Riggan’s script, doesn’t help matters. One is an “actor,” respected by the theatre critics, and one is a “celebrity,” who wants so desperately to be taken as a serious actor, and these guys made this struggle interesting to watch – especially when Riggan drags a speedo-clad Mike out of his tanning bed and the two start punching and wrestling with each other.
How Is It?
While it’s easy to see Michael Keaton as Riggan, the actor certainly didn’t have to put his entire career on the line in coming back from Batman, and Birdman is not Batman. Michael Keaton told New York Magazine, “I related less to [Riggan] than almost every other character I’ve played, in terms of the desperation. There were times in my life when I felt desperate, but it was never about this.” But this comparison will no doubt be on everyone’s mind because, much like in the film, superheroes and geek fair are hot right now.
It’s these struggles – actor vs. celebrity, critiques on our current comic book culture, fleeting fame – that make Birdman an interesting study, and you can’t help but walk away without admiring Alejandro González Iñárritu’s work. On a more technical side, the director, known for Babel and 21 Grams, filmed Birdman with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezkito to look as close to one continuous shot as possible. I mean, there are still breaks, but this will probably go unnoticed by most audiences and it actually makes Riggan’s breakdown more enthralling.
There are some lows – minor lows – in Birdman, such as the critic out to destroy the play just because she feels that Riggan has no business in the theater (“You’re not an actor. You’re a celebrity.”), as us critics are that vindictive. Not to mention, we would all lose our jobs if we decided to bash a work without even seeing it. Nonetheless, this was something I only registered when I was talking about it right after the credits, and you’ll likely skim over it.