After a brief, sci-fi-style opening of a comet hurtling through the atmosphere, Birdman begins with a through-the-door view of Michael Keaton, seen from the back sitting cross-legged in a shabby Broadway dressing room, wearing nothing but white briefs and perched midair several feet above the furniture. He rotates to set his feet on the floor and with pointed finger sends a vase gliding across a table. The unbroken sequence tells us two things with economy and grace: That the camera will be our guide through Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s backstage tale, and that the story itself won’t be bound by realism. It will instead unfold with the unsettled and unsettling restlessness of a troubled soul in search of a resting place.
Our uneasy pilgrim is Riggan Thomson, an action-movie star whose sell-by date has long since passed. As fully embodied by Keaton, his once virile visage now seems dessicated; even his toupee appears to be thinning before our eyes. Determined to commit one important act of Art, he is producing, directing and starring in his own stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
Shot in and around the St. James Theatre, one of Broadway’s legendary houses, Birdman never stops moving as director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki’s single camera swoops and slithers from dressing room to stage, wings to front-of-house, theater roof to the Times Square environs, in what seem like one take (doubtless with magicianly work by the editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione). That’s not to suggest that Birdman feels rushed, any more than Gravity, also shot by Lubezki. On the contrary, the new film unfolds with the precision of the matinee comedy that, for all its impressive feathering, Birdman really is.
The Carver story concerns two straight couples, married friends, mostly talking and drinking. When near the beginning Riggan realizes his male co-star is no good (the no-goodness played with spot-on intensity by Jeremy Shamos), he brings in Mike Shine to replace him. A younger star, Mike (Edward Norton, electric with testosterone and Method) smells flop sweat the way a shark smells blood and quickly moves in for the kill. He chops Riggan’s lines, undermines his directing, flaunts his wood on stage after trying to screw his co-star and girlfriend (Naomi Watts) during a preview and seduces Riggan’s fresh-from-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone, brash, striking and as doe-eyed as a Margaret Keane urchin). Watching with an increasing sense of horror is Riggan’s loyal lawyer (Zach Galifianikis, low-key). Occasionally Riggan is also taunted by his alter-ego, the beaky bewinged title character, showing up in the dressing room or following him down the street, flapping to remind Riggan of the foolhardiness of his mission.
Well, I didn’t need much convincing of that. For a film that’s at least in part a mash note to Broadway, Birdman, which closed the 52nd New York Film Festival this weekend and will be released by Fox Searchlight on Friday, is oddly out of date. Few are the uninvoked theater clichés here. Gonzalez Iñárritu shares screenwriting credit with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo, and none seems to have paid much attention to details (other than the fact that Broadway landlords are rarely reticent about taking money from clueless wannabes convinced they have a surefire hit).
Broadway today is awash in movie stars, many with deep roots in the theater and some even committing capital-A art. Since the invention of Hollywood, movie stars have sought legitimacy on Broadway and playwrights have poked fun at their efforts. Not news. From the bits we see, Riggan’s play is a coarse parody of the Carver masterpiece and the scenes that evoke applause from the preview audiences are silly. Riggan’s encounter at a Theater District bar with the dreaded critic from the New York Times (Lindsay Duncan, scathing), who explains why she will close his as-yet unseen play with her as-yet unwritten review, is as ludicrous as Riggan’s pandering response. Equally off is her presence on opening night (which the major critics haven’t attended in over three decades) — and the review she actually writes.
But gosh it looks fabulous. Such sleek tale-telling is propelled by Antonio Sanchez’s phenomenal drum score. Along with the suffusing humanity of Keaton’s performance, Birdman is no surprise as the critical darling of the festivals to date. But whether by design or misguided conceit, it proves the point jack-hammered without mercy by the rebellious Sam: Theater? Who cares?