Birdman has gotten great reviews for its acting and its zippy direction. Underneath the long tracking shots and the magic realism, though, it’s a pretty standard backstage drama, the kind that would not have seemed out of place in the 1930s. There’s the aging movie star risking everything to gain legitimacy by directing and starring in a Broadway play. There’s the backstage romantic tension. There’s the jaded New York Times critic, writing her reviews in longhand on a barstool. There’s the ex-wife, the rehabbing daughter, the long-suffering lawyer . . .
And there’s even a pretty straightforward example of Chekhov’s gun.
Spoiler alert, I guess.
In the final scene of the play that the movie star (Michael Keaton) is staging, he is supposed to aim a gun at another actor (Edward Norton). At one of the preview performances, Norton, who is a talented jerk, complains to Keaton that the gun isn’t real enough; he can’t react appropriately to a toy gun. End of scene.
Well, you can’t really have a character complain that a gun doesn’t look real enough without bringing this back into the plot in a big way, can you?
It’s opening night. Norton has been sleeping with Michael Keaton’s daughter. Keaton is being sued by an actor he dropped from the play. The Times critic has guaranteed to Keaton that she’s going to give the play a terrible review, no matter how good it is. Things can’t get any worse for him. We see him backstage before the final scene, loading a real gun . .
The plot device is hackneyed, but the movie actually does a clever job of playing against our expectations. The thing worked for me, even as I said to myself: Ah, come on . . .
Actually, I’d have enjoyed the movie even without the tracking shots and Keaton flying through the air above Manhattan.