There are four credited screenwriters for the script of Birdman which makes a whole lot of sense once you’ve seen the actual movie. It flies (bad pun, sorry) in a lot of different directions, it’s incredibly self-conscious about itself and doesn’t seem to care a whole lot about being too convoluted to follow. It’s director is the infamous Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritú (though he shortens it in the credits to ‘Alejandro G. Iñarritú’, no doubt relieving those who have trouble with Hispanic pronunciation) who has said that his goal for this film was trying to visualize the neurosis and crisis of ego of the artist – the actor, specifically. Iñarritú is known for his multi-cultural ensembles delving into various forms of miserablism. He’s never seen a metaphor he couldn’t pound into the ground, especially if it stands for socioeconomic issues. But Babel and 21 Grams are both strong films, built around great performances from a lot of actors, too many to name. Any faults to be found with Iñarritú are usually taste related. Which is why Birdman is so fascinating. It’s an incredible departure from his previous work, a piece so meta-textual and satirical, taking place in such a fabricated reality. It’s a baffling film in many ways, but certainly worth observing.
The film stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, a name so ridiculous that it can only be given to a movie star. Once upon a time, Riggan was the biggest actor on the planet and the star of the superhero movie megahit ‘Birdman’ and it’s two even more successful sequels. Two decades later, Riggan is no longer a star and is only recognized on the street by middle-aged folk who rarely call him by his real name, usually just shouting “Birdman!”. In an attempt to salvage his career and finally prove that he is a true bonafide actor and not just a movie star, Riggan adapts the Raymond Carver story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love into a stage play, casts himself in the lead role and plans to direct it in Broadway’s St. James Theater. The casting of Keaton creates an obvious self-referential quality to the movie, with Keaton being the star behind Tim Burton’s two Batman films of the late 80’s and early 90’s who has since become a marginal (though still very entertaining and versatile) presence in the Hollywood film industry. Some may say it’s reductive to point out the similarities between Riggan and Keaton, but it’s something that has to be discussed because Iñarritú and the rest of the filmmakers make the connection so easy to make. And yet, it is wrong to say Keaton is simply playing himself. In a film about the neurosis of the performer, Keaton plays this troublesome part without fear or limitations. Like Thomson’s quixotic quest, Birdman may be the role that redefines Keaton’s career.
The whole movie takes place on the days surrounding the play’s opening night. One of his four actors, Ralph (Jeremy Shamos) is not exactly cutting it in his role, and fate steps in when a stage light falls from above and knocks him unconscious. Just one day before the first preview, Riggan needs a replacement and another one of his actors, Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggests to him notorious stage performer Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). Riggan’s best friend, and the show’s producer, Jake (Zach Galafianakis) is weary of Shiner’s well-known attitude problems and self-destructive tendencies, but also knows that he is well-respected in New York and sells a ton of tickets. Jake suggests that they sign Mike if they can get him and Riggan agrees. It’s not long after Mike’s initial arrival at St. James that he shows his genius as an actor (already having his lines and cues memorized) and his despicability as a human being. When Riggan’s daughter/assistant Sam (Emma Stone) escorts Mike to the wardrobe department, he casually comments on her ass and drops his pants to reveal that he isn’t wearing any underwear. In the first preview, Mike drinks real gin and gets drunk during the performance, pre-empting a meltdown that ends the show early.
Riggan’s personal life isn’t much easier. Sam is a recovering drug addict who resents her father’s absentee parenting during her childhood and tries numerous things to set him off, including trying to seduce the toxic Mike. Laura (Andrea Riseborough), the last of Riggan’s actors, thinks she may be pregnant with his baby and is less than pleased with his reaction when she tells him. To top it all off, Riggan is plagued by a voice in his head, a voice that is the exact voice he used to use in his Birdman films, and it’s always whispering in his ear like a devil on his shoulder. As opening night of the play comes closer and closer, and each preview show crashes in even more spectacular fashion night after night, the pressure becomes larger and the voice gets louder. It doesn’t help that noted theater critic Tabitha Dickenson (Lindsay Duncan) is waiting with baited breath to tear Riggan’s theatre adaptation apart with all of her might, whether or not its even bad. Iñarritú’s Birdman is an attempt at visualizing the inner torment of the artist’s insecurity, the schizophrenic, manic-depressive swings that comes with trying to reach a high level of art. The movie itself is just as insecure as Riggan, I think, creating an imbalance that I’m still not sure Iñarritú was going for.
For the first time, Iñarritú works with the brilliant cinematographer (and recent Oscar-winner) Emmanuel Lubezki, and the two minds decided to shoot numerous long takes that scan through spiraling dialogue between numerous characters coming in and out of scenes and locations. The film is actually edited (by Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione) to look like one continuous take. Like Hitchcock’s Rope but with time-lapses. I don’t know how well I enjoyed this visual motif; it’s an obvious compliment to Lubezki’s skill as a cameraman that they’re able to pull it off, but making it look like there aren’t any cuts only draws attention to where the actual cuts are. The camera panning into dark corners or showing a sky fade from night to day sit on the screen like cigarette burns signifying the next reel. But the shooting style does allow the actors to work in a theatre-like atmosphere, reflecting the St. James Theatre in which almost all of Birdman is actually shot. Tales of numerous long takes and strict marks have already been told about Iñarritú’s shoot of this movie, and while the visual gimmick fell flat for me, I enjoyed watching the actors being forced into character for longer periods than the usual film shoot. It brings out the film’s best moments.
And the actors are the movie’s strong point. Led by Keaton, the cast seems to buy into Iñarritú’s multi-pronged vision of how to elicit Riggan’s emerging mental breakdown. The film does not take a creative distance from his disintegration, it’s as if we’re experiencing it with him, even in the scenes where he’s not even there. This is why Keaton’s performance is so key to the film’s success. Keaton may not be the star he once was, but he’s one of the view actors who can pull off a performance this versatile, this filled with contradictions, and have an audience buy it. Tom Hanks, by all means, was the superior version of Keaton and it’s no surprise that Hank’s meteoric rise in 1993 coincided with Keaton’s quiet decline throughout that same decade. Hanks could have given an equally great performance as Keaton does here, but we wouldn’t take to it nearly as effortlessly as we do now, because Keaton has been the forgotten star. Riggan’s connection to a superhero franchise gives Birdman the chance to poke fun of the comic book movie explosion of the twenty-first century, but Keaton’s performance goes well beyond tempered warnings for Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Hemsworth, it’s a funny, occasionally sobering portrayal of the fleeting enigma of movie stardom. It takes a little bit of luck to get to the top. It takes hard-ass work to stay there.
While the meta aspects of Keaton’s casting are outright and belligerent, Edward Norton’s are much less so. Norton’s depiction of Mike Shiner is one filled with glorious vanity and provocation; he thinks he’s provoking his fellow actors to make the play better, but he’s really provoking them to make his performance in the play better. Mike’s entire identity is his acting, and he is completely impotent (figuratively and literally) outside of that universe. His insecurity is much different from Riggan’s but it’s much more destructive and much more fascinating as his old school, method-acting ideals undermine Riggan’s attempts to control his own production. Mike is a perfect foil for Riggan, but more so because Norton is a perfect foil for Keaton. There’s a reason why an actor as obviously talented as Norton has been in virtual radio silence for the better part of a decade save for one starring role in The Incredible Hunk (another superhero movie, gah!) and a couple of memorable supporting roles in Wes Anderson movies. The dynamic between Keaton and Norton, the virtual polarity of their two characters and their performances, crafts Birdman‘s very best moments and grabs at the roots of what Iñarritú hopes to explore in this film better than any extended Steadicam shot ever will.
I wanted to like Birdman a lot more than I ultimately ended up liking it. Its aesthetic did nothing for me, and its narrative goes off the rails in the third act on purpose and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Perhaps a sequential viewing will make me care less about its more-fanciful moments, but as of right now, there are many conflicts in Birdman and very few of them actually get resolved in a meaningful way – and the ones that do get resolved felt a bit shabby, too convenient. I don’t know how closely the four screenwriters worked together on this script (one of them was Iñarritú himself), but it certainly feels like several different worldviews are pointing the story in different directions. But Birdman does have the best ensemble performance I’ve probably seen all year. Stone’s acid-tongued, tortured daughter routine plays deeper than what we may expect, while Watts and Riseborough do a hell of a lot with characters that don’t exactly get as much screentime as everybody else, both expressing the plight of the exposable actress above 30 in two very different ways. Galifianakis is only comic relief but he gets legitimate laughs. They all set the stage for Keaton and Norton, who dominate a film in a way that’s hard to quantify – it’s hard to know where simple casting ends and the performance begins. How much that kind of thing matters is irrelevant. Birdman is a singularly unique experience, that’s for sure, but it’s also a perplexing one.
Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu