Doomed actor's devastating ego trip

Birdman (MA). Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu. Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis. 119 minutes

A quarter of a century ago, an actor pulled on tights and a cape and helped to prove that superhero films could be treated as a serious proposition.

More than a decade would pass before the juggernaut really set in, with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films paving the way for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and the formidable Marvel Cinematic Universe. But it’s likely the present boom of strong, character-driven superhero films could never have happened without Tim Burton’s brooding Batman, starring Michael Keaton in the title role.

Keaton would miss the juggernaut though. He would play Batman just one more time, in 1992’s underrated Batman Returns, before walking away from the role forever.

All of which, of course, is central to the profound, disturbing joke that is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman. Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a washed-up former superhero actor trying to transcend the memory of his most famous character, Birdman, by mounting a comeback on Broadway — an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story that he has written, and is directing and starring in.

Keaton has, rightly, scoffed at suggestions that the portrayal is biographical. (Keaton is hardly washed-up, having worked continuously and respectably for decades.) But the resonance is potent, and lends emotional and comical punch to the performance. Riggan’s deep resentment towards Iron Man’s Robert Downey Jr, for example, has the sly hilarity of an in-joke shared between the actor and the audience.

Birdman is a technical marvel, presented as if it is one continuous tracking shot. Space and time contract and expand, as the camera appears to move fluidly from location to location and even through time. This is not merely stylistic bluster. The result is a work that is fundamentally cinematic yet at the same time appears to be itself a theatrical production, mounted on the stage of Riggan’s ego.

And his ego is immense. The action takes place backstage during the days leading up to the premier, and onstage during a series of previews. Riggan is out of his depth, prone to humiliating blunders, including one that results in a near-naked dash through the crowds of Times Square. But his resolve to affirm his greatness in the eyes of a media and public that has dismissed him is nearly maniacal.

His delusions of grandeur manifest, too, in his apparent belief that he actually possesses superpowers — of flight, of telekinesis. These are presented on-screen as physical fact, in the manner of magical realism, although there are strong hints that they are merely extensions of Riggan’s delusion — and thus part of Iñárritu’s gleeful, vicious, heartbreaking deconstruction of ego and fame.

The film’s excellence extends to its supporting cast. Complicated characters drift in and out of Riggan’s path, variously supporting and antagonising him in the midst of his delusion. Norton is hilariously unhinged as brilliant but volatile method actor Mike, whose ego eclipses even Riggan's. Galifianakis gives an uncharacteristically restrained performance as Riggan’s quietly concerned lawyer and friend.

Hollywood golden girl Stone, meanwhile, trades ravishing for ravaged to portray Riggan’s recovering drug-addict daughter Sam, who is unafraid to speak truth to her father  the man rather than the actor, who is slowly unravelling and doesn’t even realise it. Riggan’s relationship with Sam is one of several that demand mending as he mounts a comeback that seems doomed before it begins.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, Batman



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