Riggan (Michael Keaton), an actor best known for his role in a high profile superhero franchise, is mounting a Broadway play to reinvent himself, and get away from his most famous role. The trouble is that while Riggan wants to escape Birdman, Birdman does not want to escape Riggan, so the actor must not only deal with egotistical and highly strung actors, his daughter who is fresh out of rehab and his manic lawyer, but also his own delusions of grandeur, in order to make the play work.
There has been a lot of talk of Birdman, not least since it promises to be Michael Keaton’s triumphant return to the big screen in a leading role for the first time in what seems like forever. The good news is that Keaton truly is back; his performance as Riggan reminds us of why he was so beloved in the first place. Always buzzing on screen, and oftentimes manic, Keaton ably carries the film.
Emma Stone turns up in a rather small, but electric role as Riggan’s daughter, Naomi Watts carries on her winning run from St. Vincent, as an actress who is barely able to keep it together on or off stage, Angela Riseborough ramps up the crazy as Laura; Riggan’s girlfriend, and a woman who is seemingly unable to be pinned down, and Zach Galifianakis tries, and fails, to keep Riggan grounded as his play, and his life, spin out of control and Edward Norton almost steals the show as a talented actor who is much more at home being someone else than being himself. Norton seemingly brings the energy from The Grand Budapest Hotel, making Mike charming, highly strung, egotistical and vain; everything that Riggan is, but tries not to be, making the two perfect foils for one another.
Birdman is shot to look like a single tracking shot journey through the backstage of a theatre, and Riggan’s life. The spinning camera does time some time to get used to but once it settles, and its use becomes clear, the cinematography becomes another layer in Riggan’s story.
The screenplay, written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo, feels as though it was written with Keaton in mind. It is hard to imagine another actor with Keaton’s acting background who would have the energy and timing to make Riggan work. As well as this, the obvious joke and nod to Keaton having played Batman before disappearing is constantly alluded to, but never explicitly driven home, which makes the joke feel like a private one that the audience is in on. The dialogue is top notch, and the pretentiousness of the actors and the situation allowed to show, but never overpower, or become less than charming.
As director, Alejandro González Iñárritu keeps the film rattling along at a fantastic pace, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats, and the characters in the film on their toes, constantly frazzled and constantly with something to say. Even the smaller parts are wonderful to watch, as Stone and Riseborough give it their all, with scenes and monologues that show their talents. There are times, however, where the premise of Birdman feels as though it is about to collapse in on itself, and the joke becomes more of an annoyance, but almost as soon as the film begins to drag its heels, another clue is given, and the pace ramps right back up again.
In all, Birdman is a film about pretentious people, doing work which, they believe, will change the world, when no-one cares as much as they. The film is also an examination of ego, the past and how our relationships with family affect our daily lives and our perception of ourselves. Michael Keaton shines in this odd, funny, manic film, with the supporting cast on spectacular form. The pacing drags from time to time, and the in-joke loses some of its sparkle, but Birdman shows its cast off at their very best.