Is easy to forget, but Michael Keaton used to be a kind of a big deal.
Back in the 80s, Michael Keaton was a bona fide movie star; he had a string of successful comedies where he played the lead – Mr. Mom, The Dream Team, Beetlejuice – and he could also play it straight in films like Pacific Heights, Jackie Brown and My Life. He famously originated the role of Batman in the modern era, playing the Caped Crusader for Tim Burton in the first two films of the 90s reboot. He was generally well respected and liked; clearly a talented actor.
And then he just disappeared.
After Keaton left the Batman franchise, you just didn’t hear much from him. He went from a guy that was being considered for a ton of big budget films to a guy you forgot was even still around. He’d turn up every now and again – he did a lot of voice work during his “sabbatical” – but for the most part he kept a low profile and wasn’t much of a working actor. It was like Batman broke him; once he walked away from that role, things just weren’t the same anymore. Throughout the 2000s, he was like a specter in the acting world; he was nowhere to be found, but he lived on in the re-runs of his movies. If only we could have said his name three times and he would magically appear.
In the last few years, Michael Keaton has slowly begun to return to the conversation; he made some appearances on 30 Rock and had a role in the 2014 Robocop movie, which may have been the only interesting thing that movie had to offer. I was glad to have him back – I’ve always enjoyed Michael Keaton and lamented his exile, whether it was self-imposed or not. He seemed like a guy that didn’t get a fair shake and who should have had a much more storied career; it always made me sad when I mentioned him to people and they didn’t know who I was talking about.
As it turns out, however, the wait may have been worth our while; Birdman, which marks Keaton’s triumphant return to leading man, is an exceptional movie. In so many ways, it was the role that Keaton was born to play and if there were any speculations about his command of his craft or doubts about his ability, Birdman dispels them in spades. This is an engaging and entertaining film that you will find yourself thinking about long after the credits have rolled. The entire cast is phenomenal, but Birdman is Keaton’s show and he gives a tour de force performance. It’s so good to have him back.
Birdman tells the tale of Riggan, a basically washed-up actor that once upon a time played a superhero named Birdman, but hasn’t done anything much else to date since he passed on reprising the role in a sequel (sound familiar?). In one last attempt to prove his relevance and that he does indeed possess some acting chops, Riggan sets about writing, directing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. It’s the pretentious move that a lot of actors make to prove their legitimacy and it is not going particularly well. Shortly before previews, Riggan must replace one of his actors. Enter Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a talented method actor who has a reputation for being something of an ass (sound familiar?). Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is serving as his personal assistant and is fresh out of rehab.
And oh yeah – Riggan may possess telekinetic powers and is haunted by the voice of Birdman. So there’s that.
Keaton does a beautiful job as Riggan; while there are obvious parallels between the actor and the character he plays, they never overwhelm or take the focus away from the movie. Riggan is a complicated guy and Keaton deftly handles all the facets of his personality; Riggan isn’t a terrible guy, but he isn’t a great guy either. He doesn’t have a great relationship with any of the women in his life and his ego and need for validation seemingly obscures his sensitivity to other people’s feelings. Yet he isn’t a monster, just an actor that is a little too self-involved and who is desperate to prove that he matters. You both like and root for Riggan and think he’s a jerk; Keaton fully brings Riggan to life and inhabits this character. It’s a mesmerizing performance and one that I expect will get some attention come awards season.
Keaton is not the only person bringing his A game to this film; Norton is also fantastic, playing a role that also closely parallels his own off-screen reputation. As Mike, he is both charming and obnoxious; he can completely de-rail a performance and think nothing of it. He is so talented that is excuses a lot of his disruptive behavior, but he and Riggan have very different ideas about what this show should be and how best to achieve that. You are ready to write Mike off completely, but then there are unexpected moments of honesty and sweetness in some of his interactions with Sam. Emma Stone is always solid, so it is not surprise that she is great as recovering addict Sam. Sam has a tough exterior that masks a lot of vulnerability and Stone is able to balance both elements to create a very believable character. My only complaint was that I wish that there was more screen time for Stone, though she makes the most of the time that she’s given. The rest of the supporting cast is also spectacular – I’m always pleased to see Amy Adams in anything – but special recognition goes to Zach Galifinakis who plays totally against type in Birdman. He’s mostly the straight man in the film and serves as the voice of reason; as Riggan’s best friend and the producer of the play, he tried to keep everything from going completely off the rails as well as preventing financial ruin. Galifinakis proves that he can do serious and small work as well as he can do his usual broad gonzo comedy. To see him so restrained in his performance was unexpected, but opens up a lot of possibilities for his career.
Aside from the overall strength of the acting, the cinematography deserves to be recognized as well. As a fan of Martin Scorsese, I am conditioned to enjoy a long tracking shot; what Birdman does with its cinematography is even more impressive. The film is comprised of multiple very long takes; there is no cut in the action and the camera follows the characters through the bowels of backstage at the theater. I imagine that these shots were difficult for the actors to execute; if anyone flubbed their lines or was out of place, an entire 10-15 minute scene would have to be redone. Their hardship, however, was well worth the effort. Because of these long takes and the choreography of the scenes, the film has an energy to it that would otherwise be lacking. As a viewer, you feel like you are dancing along with these characters in a carefully orchestrated ballet and the film feels more vibrant and quick as a result. In some ways, the camera work and dialogue reminded me of The West Wing on steroids; there was walking and talking and ducking through hallways and down stairwells. It was dizzying and enchanting, drawing me even further into a story that I was already enraptured by.
Prior to seeing this film, I was a little concerned about how much I would enjoy it because of the director. I have seen several of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s previous films and did not really enjoy them; I felt that they were too heavy handed in their attempts to be serious films dealing with great philosophical issues. I had particularly hated Babel, a film that I thought should have been called Babble since people spent way too much time pontificating. While there are some big philosophical issues at play in Birdman, Iñárritu has figured out how to present them with a lighter touch. Birdman is funny, but it also deals with legacy and perception of self without bogging down the fluidity of the story. You could easily enjoy Birdman without spending a lot of time contemplating the “big issues” at play if you preferred. There is some ambiguity about the ending, but that didn’t feel like a cheat; you can interpret the events presented as you see fit.
Birdman definitely lives up to the hype that preceded its release and marks a triumphant return for star Michael Keaton. The stellar cast and impressive direction and cinematography created a movie that crackles; Birdman is uproariously funny while also not strictly serving as a comedy. The actors create fully realized characters that you are fully invested in and the story is anything but predictable. I had absolutely no idea where Birdman was going, but I simply sat back and enjoyed the ride and was happy to be surprised by how the story would ultimately resolve itself. Birdman is a fun and energetic movie and if this is what the 2014 Oscar race has to offer, I’m already excited about it. I just hope that we don’t have to wait another decade for another Michael Keaton performance of this caliber. It’s clear that we’ve all be deprived of the work of a very talented guy.
Birdman is open in limited release and will continue to roll out in additional cities.