In the week that the so-called Superman drug wreaked havoc in the torpid streets of Telford comes the mild hallucinogen with startling side effects, Birdman. Located primarily in and around the environs of New York’s Times Square and Broadway, it leads its victims into an abyss of self-loathing and inflated ego. An overdose can cause faces to flit between that of a carcass, Michael Keaton and a very familiar, flying Bird(Bat)man, who haunts the sufferer with visions of past, 1992 Hollywood success.
While 2014 gave us David Cronenberg’s snarling Hollywood satire, Maps to the Stars, 2015 starts with a more-meta-than-thou, affectionate dissection of West Coast Los Angeles through the prism of East Coast Broadway. Neither cultural capital remains unscathed. Typically Broadway is more Michelin starred to Hollywood’s McDonald’s sugar rush, but director Alejandro Iñárittu (Babel) lands a somewhat ham-hock handed swipe at both fake empires. However, though the mission statement, to caricature and belittle both of America’s main cultural legacies, is on a grand scale, the satire itself is pinpoint in its marksmanship. In the sniper’s sight of this directorial line of fire is a larger-than-life, schizophrenic, Riggan Thomson, played by the career redefining realism of a quasi-autobiographical, Michael Keaton.
It is reminiscent of the recent trend for meaty meta: from the silver fox of Friend Matt LeBlanc’s rapid career reprise and demise in Episodes to the rare treat of Simon Amstell’s worthy of cringe, Grandma’s House. The new wave of meta-comedy finds its appeal in the “is-he or isn’t he really like that…?” tabloid aestheticism that so appeals to our collective intrusion reflex. Of course, the truth is that they all draw from experience and play hyper-extended versions of themselves. It is this very version of self upon which we find our focus.
Beneath the motif of fiction, the film strikes a careful balance between the fiction and the reality. Superficially, the umbilical cord between the actor and his character is truly taut. Keaton is the man for the role. The actor, famous as the late 80s, early 90s incarnation of Batman, finds, in Riggan Thomson, a mirror to the self. Thomson was ‘Birdman’ in 1992, but in 2014 he attempts to reboot himself in the snooty, coffee and cake circuit of Broadway’s circus of critics, miles away from his lycra days. When his nemesis arrives in the form of soulless reviewer, Lindsay Duncan, Thomson swirls in a vortex of existential despair that somehow forms the backbone of Iñárittu’s black comedy.
If you are after a scornful, shredding slice of satire for New Year’s then Birdman is your destination. The parallel narrative provided by the inner commentary of Keaton’s Birdman voice, all gravelly, Cristian Balesque (not burlesque) ridiculousness, provides an astute realisation of the tumult of schizophrenia that takes hold of our alcoholic, egotistical shell of a man. The main fountain of humour issues forth from the parody of the fallen superhero, but, rather ironically it comes with an implicit spring of affection. For the likes of Marvel, whose aim is size, to be bigger, not necessarily better than the rest, and its competitors, such as Batman’s Warner Bros. the whole concept of being the subject of an ‘art’ film-spoof must bring an ear to ear smile, as the word spreads from mouth to mouth amongst the most unlikely of comic fans. Sceptically speaking, Birdman is an endorsement of the cultural impact and dominance with which these DC and Marvel Superheroes now monopolise the money-spinning market of movie mainstream.
Well, if the Hollywood heroes come out of Birdman implicitly strong, the remaining walks of high society cultural life are explicitly hung out to dry in the exhaling laughter of the cinema intelligentsia. While Emma Stone’s stereotyped stoner falls flat, she is only smothered by the true brilliance of the scolding critique. Her onscreen partner, replacing her real-life boyfriend, Spiderman (Andrew Garfield), is Edward Norton’s Mike Shiner whose smug cloud you can almost smell through the screen itself. Never has the divide between an actor’s onstage pursuit of truth and inability to adjust to live a real life away from the heat of the spotlight been more blatantly and ably recreated to the perfect pitch of parody, penis and all. Norton’s Shiner is simply hilarious, strutting his way around and in the process offering the Broadway dame to offset Keaton’s Hollywood homme.
Like the glitz and glamour of a Hollywood awards ceremony, Birdman overstays its welcome. Though this is only ever so slightly, from the perspective of artistic merit: the darkness is somewhat undermined by the lofty, fanciful flight of a finale. A man shooting himself, possibly dead in front of an 800 strong preview audience (apparently featuring Vince Cable and Keith Vaz in the front row) seems a far stronger and fitting end point for this glorious nihilism. Nonetheless, the glimmer and glitter of Hollywood backslapping may be the next stop for this early front runner for Golden Globe glory.