Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) a once popular movie star on the descent is making his theatrical debut as the director, writer and star of an adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The production is marred by various setbacks and Riggan finds himself in-crisis, caught between his artistic aspirations and the looming threat of almost-certain failure.
If a film’s worth was measured purely on the basis of how much acting was onscreen then Birdman would be the best film in recent memory because it is, without a doubt, the film with the most acting in recent memory.
Birdman is a production of extremely high-quality. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu uses frequent long-takes and hand-held cameras ensuring that the action is fluid and always a little uncomfortable in its close proximity to the actors. For a long time the film looks to be one continuous take, it’s a nice effect and one that gives us a sense of the hustle and bustle of the theatre in the days leading up to the opening of Riggan’s play. The ambiance of the film with its ensemble cast and “backstage musical” vibe recalls Robert Altman’s “behind-the-scenes” pictures with Nashville and The Player coming to mind most readily.
The direction really allows us to get up close and personal with the ensemble cast as they chew the scenery like it’s made of beef jerky. Edward Norton devours whole sections of the film’s celluloid as Mike Shiner, the golden (bad)boy of Broadway. Keaton too has a lot of fun with Riggan, presumably channeling a lot of his own life experience (though I’m pretty certain Keaton’s luck is better than that of Riggan). It’s a delight to see the interplay between the various actors, and as overblown as they are the performances are convincing and always strong.
Much of the film’s comedy comes from the inability of the actors to keep their acting “on the stage”. Everyone plays a role in Birdman and the “backstage musical” look feeds into the notion that every action in the film is part of some grand play about a play within a movie. The jokes are always at the expense of characters that take themselves too seriously, in Birdman failure is synonymous with humour.
Birdman is artifice masquerading as real-life, and while striking in its production-values the film tends to be let-down by its screenplay. The premise is strong but the script is often weak with clunky lines that put Riggan’s own passion project to shame. The scripting also hurts the film’s “jazzy” sensibility as the illusion of voyeurism created by Iñárritu’s camerawork falters under the weight of the kludge dialogue.
The film’s biggest issue is that its comedy of errors and egos is not enough to sustain the narrative. It’s no surprise when the film takes a turn for the surreal and as lavish as these later sequences are, they come as something of a disappointment. The only way that Birdman can expose the beating heart beneath its black comedy exterior is through set-pieces and not words. Dialogue is never the answer.
Birdman is a surefooted film featuring great actors acting like they’ve never acted before, it looks great, it moves well but it also relies on one joke without much of a punchline.