You know how sometimes, when there’s a searing work of bold cinematic artistry, it can also be a little bit boring? This is completely not the case with Birdman, which is an amazing movie that’s also incredibly entertaining. It stars Micheal Keaton as a washed-up Hollywood star, coasting on his long-ago success as the lead in an action-hero blockbuster and its many sequels. Michael wants to regain his self-respect, so he adapts a Raymond Carver short story for Broadway, which he also stars in and directs. And I know just what you’re thinking, please God, no, not another movie about a Raymond Carver short story on Broadway. But the whole idea works beautifully, and there’s not enough Raymond Carver to get you depressed; it’s a movie about actors misbehaving in as many wonderfully appalling ways as possible.
In my personal experience, with both my Massapequa High School drama club and my later work on an undergraduate production of The Trojan Women, in which everyone wore masks, because they were so embarrassed, theater people can go insane in the following ways: first, they can take themselves very seriously, and talk about their craft and their instrument, both of which they use to upstage other people. Secondly, actors can become needy on a level which would shame a newborn baby in a wheelchair. They can ask a huge amount of questions, all of which concern why their character needs to be onstage with other people. And finally, actors can decide that, in order to fully inhabit their roles, they need to do things like get drunk onstage, pad their crotches or their bras, or weep constantly, both onstage and off. This last ability has always made me wonder: does Juilliard offer a class in manufacturing tears, even when someone just brings you a Diet Coke, when you’d specifically asked for a Coke Zero?
In Birdman, Edward Norton plays a gloriously difficult younger star, who could teach Shia LaBeouf, Lindsay Lohan and Nicholas Cage a thing or two. Edward struts around in his underwear and less, and he loves to talk about finding the truth of a moment, while he’s eyeballing the delectable Emma Stone, who plays Michael’s cranky, neglected daughter, who slouches around, telling people off, in smokey eye makeup and micro-skirts. Birdman has a truly great script, which lets you remember just how terrific actors like Michael and Edward and Emma can be, when they’re not in franchise movies being promoted with McDonalds Happy Meals.
While almost all of Birdman takes place within a few blocks surrounding the St. James Theater, it feels epic. The director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and the cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, are absolute wizards, and not just because their names have cornered the market on vowels. I kept wondering, how did they do that? How did they get the camera to glide from the inside of a taxi, onto the roof of a theater, into a dressing room, and then through a basement hallway and onto the stage in front of a sold-out house, all in one take? I never wonder, say, how do they make Spiderman swing through midtown, or how can Superman stop a runaway subway car with his index finger, but the effects and the camerawork in Birdman will leave you gasping, and I haven’t even mentioned the sequence with the marching band in Times Square.
In real life, actors can be very dangerous, because they can be staggeringly appealing and out of their minds at the same time. Male actors like to wear thrift-shop overcoats and little hats, while actresses will tend towards battered leather jackets and chiffon-y camisoles, in January. Maybe the best way to encounter all of these people, without losing your heart, your wallet and possibly a kidney, is onscreen, in something as spectacular as Birdman, if you ask me.