November 3, 2014
This limited release flick piqued my attention because it’s Michael Keaton as an actor trying to make a comeback after making it big playing a costumed superhero twenty years before. This is so cheeky I am all astonishment. This is the kind of concept you come up with when you’re drunk at a convention, that never actually gets made, but here it is.
In a nutshell: I really enjoyed it. My friends did too. It’s artsy and bit precious in that regard, but it turned some corners I didn’t expect it to turn, and the cinematography — including the way the whole thing is made to look as if it’s one long, giant, hour and a half continuing shot — is excellent. Great acting. And it was awfully funny. Really, this isn’t an art film or a meta film or a superhero film so much as it’s a theater disaster film, a backstage drama as Keaton’s character attempts to mount his own Broadway play.
Michael Keaton is not playing himself, I’m fairly certain (even given several pointed lines, like the one about his character opening the door for the current massive popularity of the superhero genre). Instead, he’s playing a character like someone might imagine Michael Keaton to be like twenty years after his turn as Batman. It’s a thought experiment, because while the character isn’t really Keaton, a big chunk of the movie’s meaning would be lost if he had been played by anyone else.
I think what the movie is really doing is setting up a couple of dichotomies — Hollywood blockbusters, especially as they’ve been completely monopolized by comic-book superheroes in recent years v. “serious” theater. Hollywood celebrity v. “real” artists/actors. It sets up the dichotomies, and then blurs them. They’re really a Venn diagram with a bunch of overlapping circles. (There’s another great line implying that all the great actors of this generation whom Thomson might bring on are busy donning capes and being superheroes. This irony frustrates him.) I’m trying to find a way of explaining it — the movie discusses and criticizes the age-old debate about commercialism v. art without actually drawing conclusions or making judgements about either side, which is a neat trick. Thomson decides that his years as Birdman were actually great but he was so angst ridden he didn’t enjoy them like he should have. He’s trying to do art, but the powerful theater critic won’t take him seriously — not for who he is or what he’s doing, but for what he represents, and there’s nothing Thomson can do about that.
But the plot — yeah, it’s a theater disaster story, and that turns out to be a pretty good frame to hang all this on. I liked it.
UPDATE: So only after posting did I realize that two of the other main characters are played by Ed Norton, who did a turn as the Hulk, and Emma Stone, who was Gwen Stacy in the latest Spider-Man movies. Norton, who did exactly one turn as a superhero, plays the brilliant but totally assholeish actor co-starring in Thomson’s play, while Stone plays Thomson’s recovering addict daughter. Again, I can’t think that any of this casting is accidental.