Birdman isn’t about the adventures of a superhero, but the adventures of a tortured soul.
Hollywood has-been Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) wants one more shot at fame, glory, or whatever he truly desires. Riggan stages a Broadway play based on Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. There he disposes of an actor he doesn’t like and finds a loose cannon as the replacement (Edward Norton). However, the previews don’t go smoothly while Riggan faces his inner demon, the Birdman character who wants Riggan to return to the winged costume. As opening night approaches, will Riggan achieve success on Broadway, or will he find a way out?
Birdman earned its acclaim by being the anti-blockbuster. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu focuses on the humanity of Riggin the actor but only partly succeeds. Actors may face obstacles like a crazed press or an unsatisfactory performance, but Riggan isn’t sympathetic enough or Keaton’s career pathetic enough to connect with the character.
Although the performances are fine, the spotlight turns to Keaton making the most of an unlikeable guy. Iñárritu blurs the lines between fantasy (Does Riggan have superpowers?) and reality (Will Riggan rekindle his spark for acting in gritty Broadway?), what’s genuine artistry and what’s commercial conformity. Who really has “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,” Riggan or the consumers who gobble up mainstream entertainment (myself included)? There are debates on artists versus the press and Hollywood versus Broadway. Layered conversations take place over a seemingly single swooping shot, but the Really Big Speeches feel like Oscar bait.
Iñárritu provides flourishes that elevates a quite talky movie, but I can’t feel for the people on my screen when I know most of them live comfortable lives wearing masks.