Emotionally and intellectually honest look at celebrity vs. actor
Twenty years ago Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) was an A-list actor at the helm of a superhero franchise before the current book for the comic book genre. Now he’s trying to resurrect his career as an actor, not a movie star, in a Broadway play he’s funding out of his own pocket. But it’s not going as well as he thinks. He’s recently added a co-star (Edward Norton) known for taking over productions, a girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) who may be pregnant, his ex-junkie daughter turned personal assistant (Emma Stone) and an ex-wife (Amy Ryan) trying to be a friend. Throw in the success of the play, an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” resting on a NY Times Theater Critic (Lindsay Duncan) with an anti-Hollywood bent and Thomson’s life is in turmoil in the 24 hours before the production’s opening night.
This is how we enter Birdman, also entitled Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s look at the nature of fame through the meta look at the career of Michael Keaton. Keaton, famous 20 years ago for his role in Batman and Batman Returns among other things, is an interesting pick in the lead because his career directly mirrors Thomson’s. Keaton’s career peaked in the ‘90s, as he went from one of the biggest comedic actors working to an iconic role as the Dark Knight. From there he’s gone for more dramatic roles and indie work to various degrees of success; in many ways this is the culmination of his career from Returns forward.
The film is about the nature of the artist vs. the nature of being famous as an actor. Thomson as a character wants the credibility of the former while the latter would save him from his current money woes. It’s a tale one imagines many actors in that position face; it’s very rare that an actor has that ability to make a profoundly substantial paycheck for a role that tests their limits as an artist. Most times for an actor their biggest checks come from lackluster roles in lackluster films with smaller films allowing them the chance to flex those acting muscles. Thomson looks at this adaption of a Carver novel as his ticket to something more substantial as an actor.
Birdman has a number of smaller subplots, et al, but the crux of the film revolves around this dilemma from Thomson. It’s more profound because it mirrors the career of Keaton, of course, but even without him in it the film works because it’s well designed. This isn’t an actor doing the “whoa is me” routine about the necessity of doing studio fare because work that allows them to grow as an artist is scarce. This is an actor and a character finding each other at the exact perfect time; it makes the rest of the film feel superfluous as the handful of subplots melt away in retrospect because Keaton and Thomson are a perfect combination of actor and character.
For Keaton this is the role of a lifetime, one that should garner him an Oscar nomination at the end of the year. The character works because Keaton is emotionally honest in the role. It takes a lot for an actor to be able to admit his flaws, and do so in a way that is honest as opposed to self-serving, and Keaton delving deep into a character that just wants some respect as an artist but doesn’t want to truly embrace the “starving” aspect of being an actor as well. It’s something one imagines Keaton has gone through over the years as he’s gone from the heights of being one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood to wanting respect from his peers and from his audience as an artist.
The film works because of Keaton; we can feel that conflict from him because it’s palpable. Keaton must’ve had this exact same dilemma, settling on smaller roles and smaller films, but having that insight into the character makes Birdman one of the best films of the year.
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu Writer: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Nicolas Giacobone and Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo Notable Cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan, Zach Galifianakis, Lindsay Duncan
Scott Sawitz is an Inside Pulse original. He's also been featured on The Ultimate Fighter.com, Fox Sports.com, Nerdcore Movement.com, CagePotato.com, Inside Fights.com and Film Arcade.net (among others). When Scott isn't writing about film he's making his own. Check out Drunk Justice Productions right here.