In Birdman, Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a veteran film actor who is eager to rebuild his reputation. Like Keaton, Thomson is largely remembered for playing a superhero 25 years ago. And, like Keaton, he has spent much of the intervening quarter of a century explaining why he abdicated from that role – in Thomson’s case, Birdman 4; Keaton, meanwhile, turned his back on Batman.
Along with Keaton, the cast includes Edward Norton and Emma Stone, both also veterans of superhero movies. Robert Downey Jr’s fee for Iron Man 3 is broached. Woody Harrelson, Michael Fassbender and Jeremy Renner are all sought by Thomson; but, alas, they are too busy with their respective billion-dollar franchises. Writer/director Alejando Iñárritu’s hall-of-mirrors film revels in such postmodernisms; indeed, at times you might be forgiven for thinking that without such referential conceits would the film even have cause to exist.
Initially, the plot is straightforward enough: it’s a backstage satire, set over a handful of days, as Thomson directs and acts in a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver’s short story in a bid for artistic credibility. The first hour is essentially a Ray Cooney bedroom farce, full of rutting egos and romantic entanglements. All it lacks is for someone to accidentally drop their trousers in front a visiting vicar. Thomson’s co-star, Mike Shiner (Norton), is the epitome of strutting, Method-acting excess, he is also involved in a fraying relationship with the play’s leading lady, Leslie (Naomi Watts); even as Shiner upsets the production, Thomson learns that his girlfriend, Laura (Andrea Riseborough) – and second female lead – is pregnant, while his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is fresh out of rehab and struggling. Gradually, strange kinks assert themselves in the narrative: moments where Thomson levitates cross-legged in mid air, or takes flight across the New York rooftops. Along the way, Iñárritu and director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki let the film appear as if unspooling in a single take. It’s a nice piece of artifice; but much like Birdman itself it is a superficial rather than substantial attraction.
The actors digs at narcissism, ambition, insecurity, the wages of celebrity and the “cultural genocide” of Hollywood verge on the indulgent. “The play is starting to feel like a deranged, deformed version of myself,” Thomson says at one point. Ha, ha, yes; we get it! The second hour strips back every outstanding plot point to focus entirely on Thomson’s meltdown as opening night approaches. But it’s difficult to engage with Thomson’s plight: he is depthless and self-absorbed, and Iñárritu’s film isn’t half as clever as it thinks it is.