No, not RoboCop — that’s just a movie with Michael Keaton in it, puttering around the background with tempered menace. Not The Other Guys, which uses Keaton for nothing more than a recurring joke about TLC lyrics. It’s been years. Decades, even, since we saw Keaton grab hold of a role that we could really take home and stew in. Acclaim as the man’s greatest work will invariably land on Beetlejuice or Batman. But even these great, especially bizarre cinematic turns don’t offer up the full scope of which Keaton is capable. But his latest venture — Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, which has released its first trailer — just might.
It’s impossible to ignore the similarities between the premise of Birdman and Keaton’s own career: the character began his life in show business as a big name movie star in a superhero franchise, falling toward obscurity in the years to follow. Keaton’s decline was never quite as dramatic as the delightfully named Riggan Thomson’s looks to be, nor has he ever (publicly) succumbed to this degree of mania. But there’s one more connection: one last chance to prove himself more than anybody ever thought him to be. In Birdman, that takes form as a Broadway production that Riggan lands. In Keaton’s real life, it’s Birdman itself.
Forgive the meta interpretation, but Birdman does look like something we haven’t seen (or let) Keaton do in quite some time, perhaps ever. Such a master at the wisecrack and so adept at playing the tertiary oddball, and ostensibly happy to stay relegated to these talents, Keaton has been robbed of his chance to shine as an offbeat dramatic star, instead sticking consistently to the background of commercial fare. In Birdman, so it seems from the trailer (and with consideration of director Iñárritu’s history of helming inventive punch-to-the-gut pictures like Biutiful, Babel, 21 Grams, and Amores Perros), Keaton could tap freely into a darkness we haven’t seen since his days with Tim Burton; he could use his expertise with vocal tics and manneristic schisms to evoke true psychological horror, drama, and comedy alike. Birdman could give Keaton exactly what the in-universe play gives the former Birdman.
And for those of us hungry for the same brand of irreverent insanity packed into his tiny but memorable Beetlejuice performance, this time dipped in a batter of real world turmoil and emotional discord, it’s quite an exciting prospect.