Subscribe to Forte Magazine


There are times when it feels like the most interesting things about Birdman are the things it’s not doing. For one, it’s not really an exploration of how superhero movies have distorted and overwhelmed pop culture: sure, the trailers play up the “Birdman” angle a lot, but once you get past the basics – Michael Keaton is Riggan Thomas, a now washed-up actor who once was a mega-star based on his work in a string of Birdman movies and is now looking to revive his career by putting on a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story – Birdman itself doesn’t really have much to say about any of that. It’s a cool hook that ties in well with the public perception of Keaton’s career, but if they’d ended up casting, say, Timothy Dalton, the whole movie would play out basically the same way only the lead would now be haunted by his past stardom playing a British super-spy. Likewise, aside from one sharp speech from Emma Stone (who plays Riggan’s dried-out junkie daughter Sam), this isn’t really about the way that our culture has shifted away from ideas of fame and celebrity based on achievement towards a model based more on exposure – you know, the whole “social media is dragging us down” thing. Sure, Riggan finds himself locked out of his own theatre and has to walk through Times Square in his underwear, which promptly makes him way more famous that he’s been in a long time, but that never really goes anywhere.
And the list goes on and on: this is a film that’s so dismissive of pretty much every idea that crosses its mind – critics are bad, there’s a war between movie stardom and the legitimate theatre, method actors are a nightmare to be around, and so on – that after a while you come to expect that just about everything here is never going to be developed beyond that initial “hey, what do you think of this?” Which is a good thing, because this film also adopts that approach to its characters, with just about everyone in this first-rate cast – including Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s manager, Jake, Naomi Watts as Riggan’s eager co-star, Lesley, Edward Norton as the method actor who steps in at the last moment, Mike – powering into the film, making a big impression, and then practically vanishing as the film loses interest in their story.
Its virtues are more obvious: it’s smart, the performances are great, it’s very funny in parts, and Keaton’s performance is charming and likable even as Riggan is falling apart. Which is a good thing, as he’s on-camera for close to the entire film.