To paraphrase John Cage, Birdman is too insecure to know what to say, but it is saying it. Screeching it from Manhattan rooftops. The movie doesn’t eat crow; it regurgitates it. And yet, like Whiplash, it’s full of infectious energy—enough voltage to power up a smile, and maybe a few seizures. The problem is that it’s at Michael Keaton’s expense. In affect, the film is the opposite of Wes Andersonia—it’s more like a backstage musical that breaks out in fights rather than songs—but, as a work of art, it’s made impotent by its irony. It flatters the audience by playing off popular preconceptions of what showbiz people are like; shits on Middle Americans (like a multi-chinned family that wants its picture taken with Keaton’s movie-star character); and then shits on artists because having aspirations only means jerking off your ego. Right in the middle of the ensemble is Keaton, playing a washed-up Hollywood actor who’s writing, starring in, and directing an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story that’s about to premiere on Broadway. He’s like Marcello Mastroianni in 8 1/2: everything happens to him. Except, potentially, for a devious act in the beginning and a last-straw gambit at the end, he’s a cipher, devoid of volition.
Twenty years after turning down the fourth installment of a superhero franchise, Riggan Thomson is pressing bleakly past middle age, having sold out, then cashed out; he’s gone from being typecast to not being cast, and suffers from the lingering apprehension that he hasn’t—in the film’s mushy terms—lived up to his potential. What a coincidence that he’s played by Keaton! Whether or not the particulars of Riggan’s career are true to Keaton’s own—and my educated guess is that they’re not—they are corroborated by our pop-psych, tabloid know-how of the former Batman’s “fall from grace,” and this completely (and cheaply) shapes the way one perceives Keaton’s performance. Batman shadows Birdman just as Birdman shadows Riggan. That his performance is excellent, and that, so far as it goes, Keaton chose to play this role, doesn’t contradict the fact that he is being exploited in much the same way that Riggan is accused of exploiting his celebrity to mount his return to relevance.
There’s no way to get a read on this movie—and not just because the movie conveniently, and quite arrogantly, tells you you can’t by introducing a spinster theater critic who drinks alone at a bar and schemes about eviscerating Riggan in print before she’s seen his play. Zach Galifianakis classes up his mealy gay-guy bit to play Riggan’s lawyer, and seems to be the sole figure who has only Riggan’s interests at heart. And yet—spoiler alert!—he couldn’t be more thrilled about the social-media buzz his buddy gets after a suicide attempt. When the emotional focus shifts from the star to one or more of the subsidiary characters, the pat revelations come out of nowhere; they rear-end the narrative. What are we supposed to take away from Emma Stone, playing Riggan’s fresh-out-of-rehab daughter who talks like Aaron Sorkin’s idea of a twentysomething? Her father’s selfishness addled her upbringing, to be sure; so when she tells him otherwise, is she just being polite? And then there’s the matter of the Romeo she falls in love with—a self-absorbed prodigy, played by Edward Norton with caddish gusto, who can only get a hard-on when he’s in character. (Or, hokier still, only in front of an audience.) In this film’s backhanded reckoning, artists need protection from nasty know-nothing critics because they’re so pathetic and insecure. Naomi Watts, in particular, seems hobbled by this delimiting conception. “Why don’t I have any self-respect?” she cries. “You’re an actress!” her foil replies. The persistent drumming on the soundtrack pauses for gems like that; it’s a reverse rimshot.