In 2002, Charlie Kaufman could not adapt Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief for the screen and so instead wrote a film about his struggle to adapt the book. Adaptation starting Nicolas Cage, the film which came out of this, is self-consciously everything Orlean’s book is not but is still a very entertaining watch. The same can be said of Birdman, that it is both a film about adapting and is a failed adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
Birdman deals with the same themes as Carver’s short story: the complexities of love, abusive relationships, and suicidal thoughts. However, in narrativeit is very different to the original story. Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, a washed up movie star who used be known for playing a superhero called Birdman.
Riggan wants to reignite his career with a Broadway adaptation of Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, but he has to deal with a difficult co-star (Edward Norton), his recovering addict daughter (Emma Stone), his ex-wife (Amy Ryan), his current girlfriend (Andrea Riseboroug), an actress who is in a dysfunctional relationship with Norton’s character (Naomi Watts) and a theatre critic with a vendetta against him (Lindsay Duncan). On top of all this, Riggan is haunted by Birdman, who mocks his failures and chides him for giving up on the film franchise.
Birdman is a loving parody of the current superhero-dominated movie landscape. Keaton’s association with the Batman franchise, the epitome of the superhero craze, underlines this. Birdman himself is a thinly veiled Batman, he has the same gravely voice and a very similar costume. In one excellent scene, Birdman becomes enraged with a TV interview with Robert Downey Jr. and bullies Riggan about being the original superhero and giving it up.
Keaton excellently sends himself up throughout the movie, he has all the desperation of a washed up has-been, all the ambition of a struggling actor, all the aloofness of a self-centered artist. Norton is also a superb self-parody in his role as the self-involved serious actor who rants about “being real” on stage, while the rest of his life falls to pieces.
As well as parodying superhero films, the high art theatre world comes in for a roasting. Many stage archetypes are sent up, there is Norton as the primadonna stage star, Watts as the nervous actress making her theatre debut, Stone representing the effect of exposure to a world so focused on creating art and exploring inner emotions that real life relationships have been left to collapse.
Birdman is an exploration of modern trends in film and theatre. There are some good points about how superheroes have gone from blockbuster entertainment to serious art form, and how the struggling theatre world is trying to maximize its appeal with television and film actors, while said mass entertainment actors are trying to use theatre to gain artistic credibility. In one of the film’s best scenes, Duncan’s theatre critic lambasts Riggan for his egocentric production and contaminating her art form with his popular entertainment. Riggan hits back with how her elitist world is dying and needs people like him to keep it alive.
The film tackles several serious issues. Riggan blasts the current social media obsessed youth for not engaging with the real world and his daughter tells him that the world has moved on and Riggan is trying to cling to relevance without changing himself. Birdman is also an honest look at how superheroes have invaded every aspect of our artistic culture, even the theatre.
Points are made about the integrity of the theatre as a serious artistic medium where performers can explore complex emotions and nuanced characters. It is also pointed out that theatre is mainly experienced by older, middle-class white people, who are detached from other people’s problems. Whenever serious debate takes place in the film, it is always even handed and conducted in an entertaining way; the film never lectures or is preachy.
As well as artistic debates, the themes of love and difficult relationships are explored. Riggan has a dysfunctional relationship with her daughter, who herself looks for love in the wrong places - mainly Norton’s truth obsessed actor. The scenes we see from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love mirror the relationships in Birdman, we see unconditional love in difficult times, we see emotional betrayal, we see violent and self-destructive urges.
The most complex relationship explored in the film is Riggan’s relationship with himself, as personified by Birdman’s frequent appearances. Birdman tries to break Riggan down and convince him he is a failure. Riggan fights back but cannot escape his own haunting self-doubt. Riggan is a man searching for relevance in a world that has changed, whilst being unable to let go of his past.
Magical realism is used throughout Birdman, there are many scenes which could be interpreted as existing only in Riggan’s mind or by the fact that he actually possesses supernatural powers. The film blends together the emotional depth of a drama film with scenes of explosive action similar to any superhero movie. The use of magical realism allows Birdman to stay true to both genres, it is both superhero movie and cerebral drama. I was left not sure if Birdman is an art house superhero film or an art house film about superheroes.
Much like Kaufman’s Adaptation, Birdman is a film full of surprises which defies classification. It spans the worlds of popular culture and high art and manages to be entertaining on all fronts. Most of this is due to the superb performance from Keaton as Riggan/Birdman and the excellent supporting performances from the rest of the cast. Birdman excels as a movie, and I highly recommend that everyone go and see it.