A post-superhero world.
Well played, Alejandro González Iñárritu. You've dared critics not to roll their eyes at your latest film, Birdman, and you've almost succeeded.
The setup is clear enough: Actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a veteran movie star forever linked to the superhero character he brought to the screen 20 years earlier, is trying to making himself relevant again. He's thrown most of his money at a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. In addition to casting himself as the lead, Riggan is the writer and director. It may be his last, best opportunity to revitalize his career, but it seems destined for disaster.
At times, Birdman is a hilarious addition to the fine tradition of backstage farce. When a falling stage light knocks out one of his co-stars, Riggan turns to Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a gifted but legendarily difficult actor who happens to be dating a member of the play's cast (Naomi Watts). Riggan's own girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) is also part of the cast, and she may be pregnant. His high-strung agent and attorney (Zach Galifianakis) attempts to keep the production afloat, and Riggan himself tries to keep an eye on his daughter and assistant (Emma Stone), who's recently left rehab.
Iñárritu and his three co-writers get their best material from the contentious relationship between Riggan and Mike. They have fun exploring the nature of contemporary fame and the insecurities of the characters. Riggan finds renown when he's locked out of the theater while not fully dressed. A video of him marching through Manhattan in his tighty whities goes viral instantaneously.
But Birdman isn't content to be a Noises Off! for the social-media age. Anybody who's seen Iñárritu's previous films knows he's fond of the operatic gesture. He goes big immediately with the film's visual storytelling, using what looks like one continuous shot to span the events of several days. It's a virtuoso trick, but it calls too much attention to itself.
Then there's a scene in which Riggan squabbles with a New York Times theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) who's announced her determination to destroy his play, sight unseen. Iñárritu makes it into a personal rant about critics rather than something intrinsic to Riggan's character.
That said, Birdman is very entertaining when it's not trying so hard to be admired. Keaton's performance works beyond its wink and nod to his Batman history, and Norton and Stone do very strong work, digging deep to find their characters' vulnerabilities. There are funny, perceptive observations about the terrifying business of being an actor. But the film strains to be a profound statement about art. If Riggan can accept that it's okay for movies just to make people happy, maybe Iñárritu can, too.