It is of course tempting, if a bit too facile, to construct a comparison between the situation in "Birdman" and the realities of Michael Keaton's career. He began performing as a comic, then as an actor in some entertaining film comedies -- "Night Shift," "Johnny Dangerously," and "Mr. Mom," for example -- then achieved great success in the first of the revamped Batman movie franchise way back in 1989. After two stints in the bat suit, he made some odd choices -- a villain in "Pacific Heights," a supporting part in "Jackie Brown," and weirdly, the title character in the ridiculous "Jack Frost" (he must have been desperate at that point).
In "Birdman," he plays Riggan, an actor identified with another costumed superhero, the Birdman of the title, now trying to reinvent himself as a serious dramatic artist by directing and appearing in a Broadway play he has written, based on the work of Raymond Carver. An angry, difficult personality, literally haunted by the costumed character he played, Riggan frequently hears the voice of his alter ego, taunting him, urging him to return to the part that made him famous, sapping his will and his confidence. He also faces a number of reminders of his personal failures, from his ex-wife, his girlfriend, and his daughter.
The rehearsals for his play go badly, engaging most of his energy and providing most of his frustration, all made worse by an injury to one of the principal actors. The situation changes when Lesley (Naomi Watts), the female lead, convinces him to use her boyfriend Mike (Edward Norton), a talented actor almost as neurotic as Riggan. In one of the best moments in the film, Mike begins his work by giving Riggan an acting lesson, showing him to improve some of his dialogue and how to play a particular scene.
That scene in fact emphasizes the movie's major subject, the whole difficult, complicated, crazy profession of acting. The characters constantly discuss their attitudes toward the art, several of them frequently berate Riggan about his ego, his selfishness, his ambition to resurrect his career; Norton, moreover, states, and demonstrates by attempting actual sex on stage, that life is pretending and acting is reality. A nasty drama critic for the New York Times dismisses Riggan as a celebrity rather than an actor, and though she vows never to read or see the work, promises to write a review that will destroy the play and its writer-director-star.
The movie follows a strange visual pattern that mixes in a number of oddly assorted elements. The director depends heavily on the Steadicam, following each of the major characters in long tracking shots, in continuous takes, down the narrow, winding corridors backstage. He alternates that technique with frequent two-character shots, often in close-ups, with the actors, particularly Norton and Keaton, mostly arguing fiercely about the play and the art of the stage itself.
Some of the sequences suggest moments of strangely comic surrealism, with Keaton, locked out of the theater, jogging through Times Square in his underwear, followed by a crowd of tourists and fans, and then running up to the stage just in time to do his scene. The director throws in a moment of a drum band playing in Times Square, then on the stage, with a character dressed as Spider-Man jumping around. He also indulges in some wilder fantasy, showing Riggan joining the Birdman in a flight through Manhattan, then ends the movie on a most ambiguous note that brings in the title character all over again.
Whether appropriately or not for an actor's movie all about acting, "Birdman" tends to allow its performers to soar too far over the top, with the players mistaking shouting for emotional intensity, too often simply repeating themselves in scenes that also repeat themselves. Playing a very different character from any he's done before, Michael Keaton best shows his abilities when playing the characters in the play within the movie. Edward Norton, not surprisingly, inhabits the most interesting personality in the film, the person who personifies the Birdman's aspirations, who demonstrates some of the differences between the Hollywood star and the Broadway actor, an appropriate foil, even the perfect antagonist for the protagonist, teaching the Birdman how to fly.