An edgy film about the theater. An arty film about art. Imaginative. Almost Godardesque. The opening credits could have been copied from Pierrot le Fou. Maybe they were?
A soundtrack that's mostly played on a trap set? The Sound of Music this ain't. Long takes with handheld cameras in confined spaces, difficult to get your bearings. Who are we rooting for, here?
Doesn't it remind you a little bit of Arthur Penn's Mickey One?
Michael Keaton, serious actor turned Hollywood superhero, now finds himself on the tail-end of celebrity and wants to reestablish his artistic integrity on the Broadway stage. The fact that he not only wrote and stars in the play, but is also producing and directing it, lends an aura of willed self-importance to the enterprise that could easily be taken for delusions of grandeur. (Think—Steve McQueen doing Enemy of the People.)
Keaton is naturally fraught with anxiety and anger as opening night approaches, and the fact that he can levitate himself four feet off the ground while he meditates doesn't help him much. Yes, suspension of disbelief starts with the opening scene. Which is good.
But the meat of the film, which might almost have been a play, consists of a small group of talented performers interacting in a heated environment of ego and insecurity, artistry and desperation, as opening night approaches.
Zack Galifianakis, who plays Keaton's lawyer, manager, and best friend, ballasts the film with his common sense enthusiasm and trust. Emma Stone plays Keaton's mixed-up daughter, who recently got out of treatment and hangs around the dressing rooms, running errands and smoking cigarettes.
Naomi Watts, one of two lead actresses in the play, suggests that Keaton hire her erstwhile boyfriend (Edward Norton), after Keaton fires one of the principal actors just a few days before the opening. Norton is well-known on Broadway, both for his dramatic intensity and his cocky unpredictability.
Throw in Keaton's ex-wife and the second lead actress (who announces early on in the film that she's pregnant with Keaton's child) and you have an enormous potential for tense, two- and three-way conversations and confrontations in the halls and dressing rooms backstage.
Theater-dramas tend to be amusing. They have a can't-lose narrative arc leading up to irrevocable triumph or disaster of opening night. Such works as A Chorus of Disapproval, Orson and Me, and the Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows come immediately to mind. (So does Katherine Hepburn in Stage Door, though I can hardly remember it.)
One problem with Birdman is that Keaton isn't terribly likable, and it's hard to tell if he's even a very good actor. He's tormented by the voice of Birdman, the superhero he once played, who tries to convince him that no one cares about traditional theater; it's an utter waste of time. Thus the entire film simmers not only with latent violence and but also with incipient insanity—qualities that the jumpy camerawork tends to reinforce.
As the film progresses tender moments crop up more frequently, but we never really get the feeling that thing are going to be "all right." It's hard to imagine that even a resounding Broadway triumph will be enough to assuage Keaton's demons for long.
Yet I walked out of the theater saying to myself: "Wow, that was something!" I'd been wrung through the wringer and then hung out to dry.
The film doesn't say anything new about art or life, but there's a lot of art and life in it.