A washed-up but dedicated actor struggling for relevance in a rapidly changing world he doesn’t really understand is a quick summary of the new release “Birdman,” but it also applies largely to the star, Michael Keaton, which may explain some of the intensity he brings to the role. Keaton and the rest of the cast turn in excellent performances, but the film ultimately can’t escape the weight of its own cleverness.
Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor best known for playing a comic-book action hero, just as Keaton had his greatest success two decades ago in “Batman” movies. Riggan – may I call you Riggan, Mr. Thomson? — is trying to resurrect his career and give himself some legitimacy by taking a shot at theater. He is the writer, director, and star of a Broadway production of a play based on a collection of short stories by the late Raymond Carver.
Or he will be if he can get the production together and overcome his own demons, which include an impressive capacity for alcohol and the voice and eventually the image of the Birdman character belittling his attempt at a new life. His daughter, well played by Emma Stone, tells him, as even loving children sometimes do, just how irrelevant he is – why, he doesn’t even have Twitter or Facebook accounts!
A more serious problem is the open hostility of the New York Times critic, Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), who promises to sink the play with a bad review just because it is not Art. In the end, she saves it with a backhanded compliment, attributing to Riggan “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.”
The film covers three nights as the cast and crew scramble to open the show, surviving mishaps such as a stage light falling on an actor’s head. He’s replaced by Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who brings a well-established Broadway presence at the cost of supreme arrogance. Riggan stumbles into social media when he steps outside for a smoke only to have the locked stage door close behind him. He has to run through Times Square clad only in his socks and underpants to get back into the theater, a trip promptly captured and shared with the world by eager celebrity-watchers.
The film could work as a black comedy of the insular little world of theater, but this is a movie, so the Birdman trapped inside Riggan’s head plays an ever-bigger role, leading to obviously imaginary action-film sequences. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu ultimately can’t decide if the film is comical, fantasy, or some sort of magical realism. The ending undermines the rest of the picture.