Batman by way of Laurence Olivier
In Greek mythology, Icarus famously flew too close to the sun on wings made from wax then plummeted to his death once they melted. An obvious inspiration, Birdman makes mention of Icarus more than once, but I think the myth applies more to the director—Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu—than to the movie. The running theme with his work is that his ambitions outmatch his abilities, and he always crashes midflight. A backstage musical (of sorts), Birdman cannily casts Michael Keaton as a washed-up movie star who headlined a popular superhero franchise in the nineties. To prove his worth as a serious thespian he adapts a Raymond Carver novel into a play to direct and star in himself. Naomi Watts and Edward Norton play his impertinent costars, but since everything is intended as raucous Theater, the company also includes Zach Galifinackis as a stressed-out financier, Emma Stone as Keaton’s bratty assistant/daughter, Amy Ryan as his pensive ex-wife and Lindsay Duncan as Broadway’s haughtiest tastemaker. All are terrific, particularly Keaton as a wistfully self-deriding joke on his own diminishing celebrity and Norton as a genius prima donna so engrossed in performing that he’s forgotten how to experience reality. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is predictably noteworthy, with fisheye close-ups that spotlight Keaton’s roadmap of wrinkles (likewise Stone’s lizard-face) and handheld long-takes that follow the characters through narrow corridors and into lonely dressing rooms. With invisible transitions borrowed from Hitchcock’s Rope, the editing conveys an illusion of impromptu seamlessness. Accompanied by a jazzy drum score, the overall aesthetic suits the world of high-strung actors, histrionic misbehavior and raging egos. For all that, the movie overexerts in the final third, taking off into befuddled flights of fancy and faltering to jejune storytelling, thus accomplishing little beyond entertaining bombast (especially compared to the other film this year set in a playhouse—Roman Polanski’s Venus In Fur). While I enjoyed this Inarritu picture more than any other, an Inarritu picture it remains, so alas, Birdman concludes feeling long, disjointed and thematically ambivalent when not painfully obvious. Despite tremendous work, the cast and crew cannot rescue their director from soaring into the sun yet again, though it must be said, soaring is itself an astonishing feat.
Costarring Andrea Riseborough. Music by Antonio Sanchez.