I like pretty much everything that Birdman has to offer, except perhaps how it spends far too much of its time following an actor walking around. That’s a necessary evil, though, and it fits right alongside the film’s style. I wanted to give the film a hug after it concluded — and not just because it succeeded in practically every aspect it attempted, although that’s also exactly why. The film is, at its core, the need to be loved and noticed, and, well, maybe I loved and noticed it.
Michael Keaton plays our lead, Riggan Thomson, a washed-up Hollywood celebrity who is trying his hand at writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play, an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Riggan was made famous for playing Birdman, but refused to play the character more than a couple of times. Now, he’s trying to become relevant again by doing this play. Having Michael Keaton play this role is brilliant casting; the baggage and history the actor brings with him is easily noticeable by an educated audience, and we then attribute that to the character. The movie makes note of that, and plays it off in a meta sort of way.
We begin the film when the play is ready to undergo its previews — dress rehearsals in front of a live crowd — a couple of days before its opening day. But, there’s trouble on the set. An actor is struck by a falling spotlight, so a replacement is needed. A first-time-on-Broadway actress, Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggests the brilliant Mike (Edward Norton). And Mike is brilliant. He comes in already knowing the lines, somehow, and suggests minor improvements to make the play better. But he’s an egotist, he’s temperamental, and he’s unpredictable.
That isn’t all. Our protagonist’s daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), is fresh of rehab and hangs around. Jake, the play’s lawyer, has constant struggles with the budget, which has ballooned. Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is Riggan’s girlfriend and she may or may not be pregnant. Riggan’s ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), is constantly badgering him. A theater critic, Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), informs him that there will be no positive review from her, regardless of how good the play is. Oh, and Birdman (voice of Michael Keaton) is constantly in his head, telling him how awful everything is and how he should just go make Birdman 4 already.
That’s a lot going on. Now, picture this: it’s been composed in such a way that almost all of it appears to be done in one take. Now, obviously it isn’t — if you look closely, you can tell when edits occur — but it certainly looks as if it is. Some takes are at least several minutes long, which is impressive on several counts. The actors have to be on-key — I noticed only a couple of line flubs that are quickly corrected and don’t impact the scene — and the technical side needs to be flawless. This takes planning, rehearsal, and a lot of talent. Luckily, Birdman is able to pull this off, and simply from a production side comes across as fresh, assured, and wonderful to watch.
Birdman is also about something — or, more correctly, many things. Think about an aspect of the entertainment or celebrity culture, and Birdman targets it at one point or another. The media, social media, our fascination with celebrity, critics, art — even itself. All of this, and more, I’m sure, become targets for its satire. And it’s funny. It hits a little too close to home when Riggan goes off on the critic, but, hey, that’s just something one has to accept. And while the film makes a lot of good points, it often does it while winking, letting us know that it’s only semi-serious.
It makes most of these points by giving its actors monologues, not dialogues. We often get to hear a tirade by one actor, followed by a diatribe by another. There aren’t a lot of conversations in this film. Maybe that works better for this looking-like-one-take thing. It also makes it feel more like a play, and given that the whole thing takes place surrounding a play, that must be intentional.
Birdman is a fascinating film. Technically it’s impressive, but that only scratches the surface of why one should see it. It contains wonderful performances by the likes of Michael Keaton and Edward Norton — along with Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone, and others — and it’s also about things. It has a lot of criticism to levy on its targets, although at its heart it’s about the desire to be seen, applauded, and loved by others. And, Birdman, I saw you, I applauded you, and I may just love you. I’ll see you again someday.