Whether you remember him as the guy who threw away the Batman franchise before comic books were king, or the comic genius of Beetlejuice, Keaton is the crazy spinning center of Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Birdman, which closed the 52nd Annual New York Film Festival and exited Venice with massive buzz that may be tough to sustain.
Keaton plays aging Hollywood has-been Riggan Thomson – see him remove his toupee to reveal a hairline that would politely be termed receding. The [oxymoron alert] self-absorbed actor is staging a Broadway comeback in his own pretentious adaptation of Raymond Carver short stories that Thomson also produced, directed and in which he stars. Thomson’s haunted by his past – he even hears voices – when he played a hooded, flying character named Birdman, with a very close resemblance to the Caped Crusader.
Disclaimer: Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is wholly intentional.
The premise gives the Mexico-born Inarritu (Babel) the chance to poke fun at the Hollywood blockbuster machine – digs are made at Robert Downey Jr. and other thespians-turned-superheroes for fat paychecks. Additionally, it creates a swirling backstage story of intrigue, infidelity and decadence with a dash of Latin American magic realism.
Inarritu’s direction is fluid and dynamic, the dialog alternately funny and barbed, and Antonio Sanchez’s score jazzy and unexpected. The heat rises when Edward Norton enters the scene as the egomaniacal Broadway actor Mike Shiner, a last-minute replacement for Thomson’s injured co-star. The stage is set for a battle of super-charged egos played out in front of a full house. This inspires a fantastic scene where Shiner gets drunk on stage and humiliates Thomson. And, in another, Thomson gets locked out at the stage door and returns via the audience, clad only in his tighty whities and wet toupee to deliver his best line reading ever.
Norton and Keaton have a bright ensemble dancing around them: Emma Stone as Thomson’s world-weary fresh-out-of-rehab daughter; Naomi Watts as the play’s sexy but insecure female lead and Shiner’s doormat; and a relatively subdued Zach Galifianakis as Thomson’s lawyer/co-producer/enabler.
While I love all the smoke and mirrors, and Keaton’s herculean Oscar-bait comeback beside Norton’s ripping supporting performance, by the third act, I began losing traction. By the time Thomson throws a tear-down-his-dressing-room tantrum, along with a gratuitous girl-on-girl kiss, I began to wonder what was the there there? Where is this going and why?
As I found in Inarritu’s Babel, and then Biutiful, there is a brilliant talent hindered by an ‘I’m better than Hollywood’ smugness. He is, that’s true, but I want Inarritu to deliver all the way, to break every mold, to really take wing. He almost did this time.