Director Iñárritu‘s film starring Michael Keaton (Riggan Thomson) as an actor who was once a star in a ’90s Birdman franchise. Now he’s on Broadway acting Raymomd Carver’s What we Talk about when we Talk about Love with Edward Norton as Mike Shiner. It’s about the frantic egotism of putting on this play. Emma Stone is his ex-druggie daughter. The hallucinatory appearance of Birdman speaks terse truths to Riggan. He walks through Broadway in his underpants inadvertently starting a new kind of realistic theatre. He has Birdman visions.
The camera follows Riggan around, so you feel as if you’ve asked to take part in the hectically claustrophobic self absorption of the characters. The similarity of Birdman to Keaton’s own Birdman is of course entirely intentional. The seeming real time ducking and weaving of the camera parodies the hand held breathlessness pioneered by the Blair Witch Project, but here it gets us into dark places as Riggan learns some hard truths about himself both as a neglectful and selfish parent of Sam and as an actor from the aptly named Shiner. Edward Norton’s Shiner is a perfect mickey take of all those tediously obvious method actors that we first saw playing themselves in beatnik sets in the ’50s, the Lee Strasberg school of actorly self consciousness. The rapid fire incestuous in-jokes about actors recall the similar smug self regard in Betty Davis All about Eve. In Birdman the actors are expected to be predatory, vain, arrogant, and abrasive and they don’t disappoint. In Birdman it’s often difficult to draw the line between parody of theatrical vanity and the transparent celebration of that very vanity. Keaton’s facial gurning draws on his recent performance in Other Guys, like electrified facetiousness. Are we supposed to congratulate Keaton on his candid self exposure, or his acting at being self revealing? For all the actors the film looks like an exercise in self therapy helped by energetic jazz music that gives the whole film an unrehearsed feel. The camera is as energetic and confrontational as the dialogue, as it expressionistically pans over the theatre, streets, and roof tops. Is being punch drunk from the camera and dialogue the same as any exhausting insight into one’s self or others? What ever the answer might be, it’s occasionally fun.