There’s a moment in Birdman where Michael Keaton’s washed-up movie actor Riggan Thomson stands swaying near the edge of a New York City rooftop. “Hey,” yells a woman off-screen, “is this for real or are you shooting a film?” A film, he shouts back. “You people,” she calls to him, “are full of shit.”
It’s the closest thing the movie — which switches genres at the literal snap of a finger and uses a madcap set of camera angles to tell a story that can only be described as gleefully meta — comes to having a thesis. Riggan, and his attempt to prove himself as an artist through the staging of a Raymond Carver adaption, is full of shit. The powerful New York Times theater critic, making or breaking careers in an outdated, archaic industry with a martini in hand, is full of shit.
But unlike other movies that deal with artists who are full of it and deranged as they cast their egos in every direction, Birdman doesn’t pass judgement on the posers. After all, that would be sort of hypocritical; this is a movie about authenticity that’s as stylized and whimsical as any big-budget action movie. It’s also a story about making a stage play that just happens to have been filmed using the most conspicuous tricks in the film-nerd canon.
Birdman takes place almost entirely in the St. James Theater in New York’s theater district — in my mind, the same morbid, schizophrenic Broadway in which the cult dark comedy Death to Smoochy was shot. Here, the middle-aged Riggan Thomson — formerly Birdman, of a fantastically successful superhero franchise — has sunk most of his money and sense of self-worth into the task of writing, directing, and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. That the Carver story is just about the single most likely thing to be assigned on day one of a freshman lit class is the first of many nods to Birdman’s alternate title: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.
Michael Keaton’s Riggan may be ignorant, but he’s not unselfconscious. Despite the reassurance of his best friend and left-hand-man Jake — played by Zach Galifianakis — on the eve of the play’s preview, Riggan is coming unravelled. Caught between the egotism that led him to recast himself as a True Artist in the first place and a nagging, vain sense that his celebrity disqualifies him from having to play anyone else’s game, he ping-pongs between different shades of delusion, desperate to prove he is anything but, as one critic puts it, "a Hollywood clown in a Lycra birdsuit."
In another movie, Riggan’s hallucinations — the voice of a younger, more famous Birdman growling in his ear about the haters, his ability to levitate objects in his dressing room — might signal insanity. Here, his superhero powers are just an extension of the movie’s odd, circular world, one where art and reality are blurred to the point of being near-indistinguishable.
When one of Riggan’s lead actors needs to be replaced at the last minute, he goes even further into debt to cast Mike Shiner, played by Edward Norton. Shiner is a critically acclaimed and famously difficult actor, obsessed with lofty notions of art. As many have already noted, Riggan Thomson’s washed-up Hollywood celebrity has a spooky resonance given Keaton’s status as a semi-reclusive former Batman; it’s also worth noting that Norton, patron saint of complicated and difficult men, is an award winning and choosy actor with a history of, for example, refusing to promote movies he’s starred in on creative grounds. This is a movie so circular — and acted in such a big, expansive way — you start to look for these sorts of associations everywhere.
They’re joined by a large, almost impossibly acrobatic cast: there’s Naomi Watts, peacocking her best sharp and ruined Mean Girl; Andrea Riseborough as Riggan’s open-faced co-star and lover; Amy Ryan in the role of his measured and rueful ex-wife. The British stage actor Lindsay Duncan has a killer cameo as the frosty, red-nosed theater critic who deals out prim, evil judgements. And Emma Stone, in a kind of metaphor for her career thus far, is banished to the background as Riggan’s daughter and assistant, only to explode halfway through the film in a fantastic extended monologue so teenaged and furious I thought her eyes might pop out of her skull.
But for a movie with an impressive ensemble cast there’s very little ensemble to Birdman. Rarely do you see more than two characters in a room at a time — which brings us to the part about film-nerd tricks. The movie, thanks to deft editing and a fantastic amount of precision on the part of its actors, appears to take place in a single tracking shot. The camera winds through the corridors of the James, swooping behind the actors as they move from stage to dressing room to costume department; the already cramped and labyrinthine theater becomes like a damaged, human-sized anthill.
But the uniquely cinematic move used most often in Birdman is, crucially, the close-up. Birdman is full of close-ups; so much so that most of the movie is told through extended pieces of dialog between two people, camera trained close. The movie feels, at times, like a series of progressively intensifying sketches. This tactic also ensures, especially as the fabric of reality starts to come undone later on, that we only really know the characters based on how they’ve projected their (full of shit) selves onto each other. It’s just one of the excellent, sly technical gags that make this near-perfect movie feel delightful despite its existential weight.
Birdman’s broad, ambitious themes — the blurry distinction between high art and low, the tenuous division between perception and truth — have been chewed through everywhere from Charlie Kaufman movies to reality TV. In Synecdoche, NY, a Kaufman film quite similar to Birdman, fantasy is pathologized: it’s a great, sad movie. Birdman, in contrast, is jubilant, a fantastic extended riff about people who righteously desire not just success, but a life that looks and feels like a work of art. And that’s a particularly relatable theme, in 2014.