It’s the beat of the jazz drum. There’s a rhythm to Birdman, complementing the clicking and clacking backstage of a Broadway theater, that enhances everything. The actors move with conviction at an idle pace. The temperature heats up, that beat more frenetic, as curtain closes in on the dysfunctional cast. The lively tempo, stamped by the film’s creative directing, makes Birdman what it is.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, doing his best directing, takes us backstage of a messy Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, a last gasp by washed-up actor Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton, in a resurgent role) to break out of his post-superhero depression.
Inarritu’s crafty camera work moves us up and down stairs through the theater’s aging hallways and wrecked dressing rooms, onto the stage and back again. The director wisps around corners, in and out of doorways in one fell swoop, like the film was finished in a single, perfect swift take. Quick cutaways are completely absent, in favor of shooting scenes that couldn’t possibly look any smoother. The camera moves like the the Birdman, the voice in Riggan’s head, is flying around the theater, seeing everything that’s happening.
But the actors don’t see it, because they’ve never actually seen Riggan’s supposed powers. The angry actor destroys his dressing room, throwing chairs, makeup kits and pictures with the flick of his finger, but when Jake (Zach Galifianakis), Riggan’s agent and friend, walks in the room, Riggan’s chest-passing his TV into the wall. Later, Riggan comes down from a flying joy ride around the city, landing on the street around people who act like nothing’s happened and a cabbie chases him into the theater for not paying the toll. Only in the ending does Riggan’s daring daughter Sam (Emma Stone, ever so wonderful) see him fly.
Inarritu’s direction maintains the realism of a live theater production, despite a satirical script, with long, circling shots of Riggan and the ensemble, especially hardened Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), going back and forth with the script, adapting, reacting and, of course, arguing.
The director has the cast to do it, with Naomi Watts, who has done tremendous acting in the last year, as Lesley, a Broadway virgin trying not to blow her dream into bits and Andrea Riseborough as the sexy, sometimes level-headed Laura. The actors are their best live-action selves, moving in and out of scenes in progress without lowering the quality or causing an unintentional interruption.
Every piece links up to form something like a great jazz tune. After listening, it’s hard not to think all songs should sound like that. In the case of Birdman, it’s best just to appreciate that a film with its rhythm and bright complementary colors is so enjoyable to watch.