Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a washed-up film star best known for playing a superhero called Birdman twenty years previously. He hopes to regain credibility through writing/directing/co-producing/starring in a Broadway play but clashes with temperamental theatre star Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), adored by everyone except those who have to work with him, and struggles to reconnect with his daughter Sam who is fresh out of rehab (Emma Stone). Occasionally Riggan hears his alter ego Birdman talking to him and finds that he is able to perform super-human feats…
The dialogue is excellent; writer/director Alejandro G. Iñárritu co-wrote the screenplay but it has its own style. Like All about Eve before it, it’s full of clever witty lines; studied at a line-by-line level, it’s one of the strongest screenplays in years. The character of Sam works well in showing a modern perspective on the insular world of the theatre. Generally I dislike references to social media in films but popularity through being a viral success is relevant to the film’s theme of popularity versus critical appraisal.
Despite being the title character, Riggan is not the most interesting character in it; Norton and Stone frequently steal the scenes from him and their scenes together are one of the highlights of the film. Norton is particularly good, providing the fun- and even pathos- that Keaton’s performance lacks. Keaton doesn’t do a bad job but it isn’t a ‘star’ performance in a film where he should be the anchor. As with Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, we’re told of his former achievements but never given the impression that even in his youth he achieved popular success. The addition of Birdman as Riggan’s alter-ego is a surreal and bold attempt to show Riggan’s former glory, although the idea that he secretly feels some infinity with his former role isn’t fully explored. Again, that’s down to Keaton’s performance in a role that offers the potential to be iconic.
The film slightly tails off near the end- Riggan’s speech to a theatre critic out to get him feels too cliché and as the focus moves away from the supporting characters and back to him, the comedy gets a little lost. Nevertheless, I think the film is largely successful in creating a modern perspective on the theatre world.