The camera is rarely still in “Birdman.” In long Steadicam takes, it prowls the narrow backstage hallways and dingy crannies of Broadway’s St. James Theatre, where most of the picture takes place. Brilliantly guided by director of photography Emmanual Lubezki, it glides in for close-ups then swoops behind the performers and follows them, matching their hurried — and backstage everyone is always hurrying — steps, stride for onrushing stride. Thus does the camera capture the restless energy that goes into mounting a show.
The writing in “Birdman” — credited to director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo — snaps and crackles with intelligence and keen insights into actors and acting. The dialogue is corrosive, tender, raging, despairing and achingly honest.
As for the performances. … Using technical terminology here, people in “Birdman” are acting their guts out. None more so than Michael Keaton.
In a shatteringly intense performance, he plays Riggan Thomson, an actor who gained world renown playing a costumed superhero in a gigantic blockbuster franchise, and whose career went into an eclipse after he left the role. And, yes, that’s oh, so, very meta.
Keaton and Iñárritu (“Amores Perros,” “Babel”) reference Keaton’s real-life relationship to Batman in ways big and small. One specific, not-so-small but pretty sly way is Keaton’s use of a harsh raspy voice straight out of Christian Bale, his successor to the Bat role, when voicing Birdman, the alter ego that only Riggan can hear and nowadays only he and we, the audience, can see.
Riggan is a man melting down. He’s in hock up to his eyes, having mortgaged everything to write, direct, star in and finance his first Broadway stage play based on Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The theater world is skeptical, viewing him as an upstart. His inner Birdman is hectoring, raspily reminding him “we grossed billions” and now no longer do.
Riggan feels burdened by his celebrity. In interviews, he wants to talk about his craft, but all the press wants to know is whether he’ll do “Birdman 4.” He’s recognized on the street by people who say, “he used to be Birdman.” He’s desperate to distance himself from his Hollywood fame, but he worries that as his fame recedes, he seems to no longer exist.
When a key co-star is konked by a falling light during rehearsals, Riggan reluctantly contacts an enfant terrible Broadway star named Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) to take over the role in hopes of juicing up the box office. Mike accepts. Fireworks commence.
Shiner is a great performer but a difficult, egotistical human being (which has certain resonances with Norton’s off-screen persona). He rewrites Riggan’s play on the fly, upstages him in the press, mocks him as a “Hollywood clown in a Lycra bird suit.” Off-stage, he’s a manipulative jerk and provocateur. But onstage he’s brilliant. The truest things in his life, he says, are what he accomplishes on the stage.
Together these two actors, playing actors, push each other’s performances to ever greater heights. This is a movie about the craft of acting and the price performers pay, and these characters explosively debate and embody the tricky divide between celebrity and art, defining that divide as a place where self-loathing clashes with overweening self-regard.
Swept up in their turmoil is Riggan’s angry out-of-rehab daughter (Emma Stone), who berates him for not having a Facebook page, telling him that without one he, in fact, doesn’t exist. Her performance is of high caliber as is that of Naomi Watts as the female lead in Riggan’s play, a Hollywood actress as anxious as Riggan to prove her legitimacy on Broadway.
Iñárritu orchestrates the picture with breathtaking boldness, blending gritty reality with supernatural elements that lead to an ending that is sublime and literally uplifting.