I have mixed feelings about this movie. As a back-stage comedy, a sort of American-style Noises Off, it is highly entertaining and very funny. A strong cast make hay with a witty and intelligent screenplay and some deliciously whacky situations. Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough have a surprisingly good feel for comedy and Emma Stone does great disgruntlement as Riggan’s daughter who feels it incumbent on her to be mad with her dad although she’s not actually sure why.
The three male leads get the best material. Michael Keaton delivers a comic tour-de-force of bluster and bathos as Riggan, a washed up ‘B’-lister trying to re-invent himself as a Broadway actor and playwright. Zach Galifianakis gives us the full Leo Bloom as Jake, Riggan’s frazzled lawyer-cum-minder-cum-fixer; but the big scene-stealer of this movie is Edward Norton as the truly grotesque Mike Shiner, a hideous concoction of sleaze, self-regard, vanity and absurdity, a method actor of mediocre talent and huge ego. This is a gift of a rôle but could easily have descended into parody without Norton’s sure touch.
One can’t help noticing the plot’s uncomfortable closeness Keaton’s own situation (for Birdman, read Batman). There is a sub-text which seems to suggest that Keaton is hoping this movie will afford him the same respectable legacy that Riggan is searching for with What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, his ill-fated adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story.
Emmanuel Lubezki ‘s cinematography contributes much to the unique look of this movie. Fluid tracking shots seem to flow seamlessly (clever digital editing?) giving the impression of long unedited takes. The design and art direction by Kevin Thompson and Stephen Carter respectively, are beautifully observed – the seedy, grubby backstage and dressing rooms of the St James Theatre are totally convincing. And so on the level of a comedy about the trials and tribulations of trying to launch a Broadway show Birdman is a very good movie.
But what has propelled this movie into the realms of award nominations and associated hype is what I can only call the fanciful stuff. And that I don’t like. I can only assume that Iñárritu is attempting a cinematic equivalent of the literary genre known as magical realism, but for me it just doesn’t work. Riggan’s ability to levitate, move objects telepathically and ultimately to fly are perplexing. These elements add nothing to the piece. I get that these scenes are not to be taken literally and I do understand the notion of fantasy in comedy. But whereas in films like Billy Liar or The Secret Life of Walter Mitty they are the essence of the comedy, in this movie they detract and divert us from the story and seem to have no logic or purpose.