With brilliant direction, Keaton soars in ‘Birdman’

By Alex Holzman
Correspondent

The central structural concept of “Birdman” is that there are no obvious cuts – the camera pirouettes and glides around the set, glancing from character to character like some phantasmal observer, invisible to the characters but privy to nearly all. There are cuts hidden behind closing doors and backstage blackness, and the observant viewer will spot them, but there’s little fun in that.

The ceaseless motion lends “Birdman” an air of urgency and fast-paced necessity. Viewers have little time to process what just happened because director Alejandro Iñárritu has already flown off into the next scene.

Keaton plays Riggan, a washed-up movie star haunted by his blockbuster past. (AP Photo)
Keaton plays Riggan, a washed-up movie star haunted by his blockbuster past. (AP Photo)

“Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” employs this concept while following Thompson Riggan (Michael Keaton), a washed-up blockbuster star famous for his role as Birdman in the fictional film series of the same name. Now, beyond his prime, Riggan prepares for the opening night of his Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s magnum opus “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

Attempting to fight off the notion that he’s little more than a superficial wannabe destined for obscurity, Thompson has used the last of his savings to stage this production, with everything he is and was riding on its success. The stakes are high, and the stage is quite literally set.

The metafiction at work here is pervasive while avoiding self-indulgence. It’s no coincidence that Michael Keaton — who is most famous for playing our world’s spandex-clad winged superhero, Batman — was cast. Keaton embraces any and all correlation, and this lends his performance a uniquely self-aware characteristic that elevates it to another level.

With long shots and minimal cuts, ‘Birdman’ flows like a theatrical production. (AP Photo)
With long shots and minimal cuts, ‘Birdman’ flows like a theatrical production. (AP Photo)

In a year of breakouts and revivals, Keaton here is no exception. Watching an actor play an actor is impressive enough, but watching Keaton play an actor who isn’t as good at acting as Keaton himself, is even more impressive. That may sound like meta nonsense, but it’s chuckle-inducingly real while Thompson acts alongside famed method actor Mike Shiner (Ed Norton). The casting and performance here are beautifully synergized, and not just with Keaton.

As opening night approaches, Thompson’s psyche begins to deteriorate, and the film’s tempo picks up. The gliding camera quickens, and Antonio Sánchez’s punchy, jazzy, drums-dominated score conducts the characters as their anxieties become even more pronounced.

More and more, “Birdman” begins to feel like a theatre production: scenes change as sets move, actors perform and the curtain falls. There is an underlying energy that carts viewers and actors alike to unexpected heights. Iñárritu was reported to be an unyieldingly intense director, choreographing scenes to the minutest of details, all for the sake of this vigor.

“Birdman” jives and sways and dances along, never feeling bloated despite its two-hour runtime, never seeming rushed despite its incessant pace. It is a film of identity, of personality, of perception, and it is a film that projects confidence and competence while remaining consistently aloof and approachable.

At the Oscars, it will probably win Best Cinematography and possibly Best Editing and Best Soundtrack. It is also a good bet for Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture. But Oscar buzz is just marketing.

Like Thompson, “Birdman” strives not for sheer recognition – not for the millions of Hollywood dollars – but to silence the id and soar instead to the loftier realms of art, affirmation and damn fine entertainment. What could possibly be more superheroic?