Looking to reestablish his career, Riggan Thomas stages a Broadway adaptation of John Cheever’s “What we Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Birdman documents the previews and opening night performance while Riggan is dogged by his most famous role. He is trying to escape the shadow of his public sphere successes as a franchise superhero, desperate to prove his acting chops and bask in the validation of his peers.
There are perhaps only two fully fleshed characters in all of Birdman, Riggan (Michael Keaton) and Mike (Ed Norton). The latter is an actor with respect but little fame, and the former is an actor with no respect but tremendous fame. Everyone else in this world exists in some validation of these two. Its similar to A Face in the Crowd, where all the characters were totally reliant on Andy Griffith’s “Lonesome Rhodes” whether or not they realized it. In Birdman its unfortunately more simplistic. Everyone who is not Riggan or Mike barely exists without them. It is a shame, since the cast is stacked with talent. Amy Ryan pops in as Riggan’s ex wife, the entirety of her dialog is devoted entirely to him. Naomi Watts, almost a decade out of the A-List but still deserving, is mostly wasted as Mike’s long suffering, bottom tier spouse. Perhaps worst of all, Birdman continues Hollywood’s sad streak of not knowing quite what to do with one of the best actresses working today, sticking Emma Stone in a thankless role as Riggan’s damaged daughter. Not only the physical manifestation of Riggan’s selfishness she gets the sad privilege of drawing exposition out of Mike too. Stone does score one of the films best monologues (dressing down her father).
For all its focus on these two male characters, Birdman spends the entirety of its running time driving home just how awful they both really are. Vapid, envious, with a tendency toward suicide, whether figuratively in their careers or family lives or literally in Riggan’s case. For me its a drag to be wedded to people who are fundamentally terrible and unlikeable. It doesn’t help that the few enjoyable people inhabiting this world remain stubbornly one-dimensional, namely a very toned-down Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s manager.
Yet despite this, Birdman is still a technical triumph par excellence. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu sets the whole picture as a single continuous shot, one that incorporates deft sound editing and CGI spectacle. If anything it lets the audience understand the rush of adrenaline that accompanies live performance.
There is no other actor who could play Birdman. With Keaton the film gains a metaphysical dimension. Did Keaton go through a similar wrenching process in his career?
Maybe some context is in order. Not too many years ago I passed a knockoff shirt stand at a shopping mall which featured prominently Heath Ledger’s Joker and Michael Keaton’s Batman. Even after Christopher Nolan’s critically acclaimed and massively popular Batman trilogy, it’s Keaton who remains fixed in the public consciousness. It was the first Batman film that kicked off the modern era of big budget comic book adaptations. Except for a brief lull in the late nineties, comic book films only grow more popular year after year.
Perhaps more importantly, Keaton turned down a lucrative third Batman film for artistic reasons. His vote of no-confidence in Joel Schumacher perhaps is as endearing to comic book fans as his acting work in the cape and cowl.
But outside of some supporting roles, Keaton never emerged into a great Hollywood actor. Ultimately Birdman is a case study in why. Riggan needs to be fundamentally likeable, especially since the entirety of his actions are selfish and self serving. The audience needs to forgive his transgressions lest they abandon him altogether. Keaton can’t quite pull this off despite all that metaphysical weight. He remains unlikeable and off putting.
In his career, Keaton never quite found his niche outside of his collaborations with Tim Burton. Burton was able to channel and amplify Keaton’s maniac energies in Beetlejuice, and then wrung gold from the conspicuous absence of such mania in the the mad worlds of his two Batman features.