Some people have told me they never want to see another movie about an aging white dude trying to find himself, repair his marriage, and confront the prospect of his own death. Those people may not like Birdman.
Everyone else: if you have room for even one more of those movies in your heart—if you are ever going to watch another guy try to figure his life out on screen again—let this be that film. It’s a wonderful hilarious kinetic tale of a dysfunctional writer-director trying to pull a theater crew of misfits, losers, and closet cases together for a killer opening-night performance without going crazy. The special effects are beautiful and low-tech, I laughed so loud I almost made the people in front of us move, and the soundtrack’s excellent.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, Birdman is the grown-up Muppet movie you never knew you wanted.
Here’s how it breaks down:
Michael Keaton is Riggan Thompson is Kermit D. Frog, neurotic leader of a troupe of misfits desperately trying to make it on, or at least near, Broadway with a charmingly dated concept (Vaudville in the 80s / painfully earnest Carver adaptations in the ’10s). Their shows are a weird mix of cynicism and blinding idealism, on a shoestring budget, with enough of a revue aspect to allow for hilarious backstage costume antics—bet-the-farm passion projects helmed by a director/writer/producer/star so desperately earnest it sometimes hurts to watch him.
Edward Norton is Mike Shiner is Gonzo, hyperactive hypersexual hyper-actor, darling of the New York theater establishment, self-proclaimed artiste who will either save Riggan / Kermit’s sinking ship or sink it under the weight of his massive ego.
Andrea Riseborough is Laura is Miss Piggy, Riggan Thompson’s girlfriend, an actress getting her first big Broadway break. This casting call is controversial around the Gladstone Household. I think Piggy maps better onto Riseborough’s character because of her relationship with Keaton/Kermit, but my wife points out that Piggy’s temperamentally closer to Mike, Norton’s character. For that matter, Ms. Piggy would be an excellent casting choice for Amy Ryan’s character, Sylvia Thompson, Riggan’s ex-wife. In part this speaks to the complexity of Piggy’s character—she’s the most dramatically intricate Muppet by a long shot. On the other hand, it speaks to the fact that there aren’t enough lead female Muppets, dammit. A gender-blind casting would probably have Rowlf as Riseborough, Piggy as Ryan, and leave Gonzo as Norton. I’m trying to preserve physical similarities to the extent possible, though, for humor purposes. What, you thought this Muppets/Birdman post would resist cheap critical tricks? Moving on…
Emma Stone is Sam Thompson is Scooter, a production assistant desperately trying to keep everything straight around here, stuck between fury and reluctant awe. Granted, Scooter’s the landlord’s son in the actual Muppets, but Sam, as Riggan’s daughter, is similarly joined at the hip to the production.
Naomi Watts is Leslie is Janice. Sort of a cheap shot, admittedly—see above on the relative paucity of lead female muppets. Janice is far too laid back for this casting decision, but the in-universe Muppet movies (like Treasure Island) sometimes play temperament conflicts between muppet and role for laughs. Plus, I feel like Janice would be about as frustrated with Gonzo as Lesley is with Mike throughout this film.
Lindsay Duncan is Tabitha Dickinson channeling Statler and Waldorf. I’m not sure this is so much a casting choice as “surely these three know one another.” This comparison actually makes the Dickinson character work better in the movie, since while she’s portrayed as a serious critic, she’s more of an homage to S&W (and, for that matter, to Anton Ego).
Zack Galifinakis is Rowlf, The Only Sane One. Or the Weirdest One, we’re not precisely sure.
JACK BLACK SAID NO DRUMS! Admittedly that’s a cheap shot, but not so cheap as what’s next…
Doesn’t it all make so much sense now? Doesn’t it?
For serious. See movie. See movie.
Max Gladstone writes books about the cutthroat world of international necromancy: wizards in pinstriped suits and gods with shareholders’ committees. Last First Snow, his next novel, is about zoning politics, human sacrifice, and parenthood. You can follow him on Twitter.