Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) | Director Alejandro González Iñárritu | Score: 7.7
When filmmakers make movies about theater, its generally to deconstruct the inherent artifice in the form, taking the audience backstage with gloomy actors peering into grungy mirrors, and high-strung directors having to cope with every conceivable kind of roadblock on their way to realizing their once-beautiful artistic vision (and to be fair, most movies about movie-making are very often depicted in the exact same way, only with much bigger crews and even more inflated egos). In this, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film more or less follows suit, but whereas most of these dramas exist almost solely to decry the difficulty of cooperative art, this film also allows for the sublime payoff of such an endeavor, even if that payoff involves one’s literally giving everything they have in order to achieve it.
Iñárritu has always been a bit of a wunderkind in his technical proficiency, not unlike his fellow Mexican auteur, Alfonzo Cuarón. But whereas with some of his early work, such as 21 Grams, that technique served to mask some of the film’s other shortcomings and pretensions, here, with a camera that sweeps and swoops on a never-ending steady-cam track, swinging down one tight, dimly lit corridor backstage or another in search of the character significant to that particular scene, it feels much more organic. It plays as a single, connected shot — though, as there are identifiable segue points and time jumps, Iñárritu isn’t trying to baffle us with his cinematic slight-of-hand, that’s not at all his point. With this film, as with his previous masterpiece Biutiful, Iñárritu has managed to incorporate his laudable technique with his artistic vision, putting the one in service to the other, and not the other way around.
We first meet Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) in his underwear, floating gently over the floor of his dressing room in a state of calm meditation. This is not to last. A former big name Hollywood actor whose major claim to fame was a series of “Birdman” superhero films in the late ’80s (obviously, much like Keaton himself), before falling into complete obscurity and financial collapse, Riggan has instead poured himself into a Broadway adaptation of the revered Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” A complete labor of love, Riggan, who wrote the play, is also directing and starring in it, with the help of his producer/lawyer Brandon (Zach Galifianakis), and his just out of rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who’s working as his assistant. His Zen calm is interrupted first by Sam, and then his Birdman inner voice, a gravelly scold who discounts everything he’s done save his superhero character, and pushes him to an insecure frenzy.
When one of his lead actors (Bill Camp) gets unexpectedly stricken from the production the day before previews are meant to begin, Riggan takes the opportunity to bring in a big name, high wattage replacement, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), with the help of Shiner’s current girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts), another of the production’s principles. Shiner brings a keen, artistic intensity — while also sparking tremendous interest from the theater-going public in the form of advance ticket sales — but he’s also enormously destructive and irresponsible, a Faustian bargain Riggan has no choice but to accept, under the dire financial circumstances.
There are other complications, of course, including the possible pregnancy of Laura (Andrea Riseborough), the other principle actress and his secret paramour, and the increasing flirtation between Shiner and Sam, a young woman whose hold on her sobriety is as much on the precipice as her tendency to sit up high on the edge of the theater roof looking up at the city lights.
In his best work, Iñárritu is able to pack his narratives with many seemingly disparate elements crashing together — Biutiful involved not only a clairvoyant dying of cancer with young children, and an estranged, clinically insane wife, but also an illegal immigrant black market operation that leads to a horrific and entirely avoidable tragedy — sparking off one another and somehow coalescing into an artistic whole by the close. He spikes his work with a liberal dose of what we might call magic realism (in one sequence, shortly before opening night, Riggan literally flies up into the air and swoops around the city in a joyous epiphany), but without allowing the grittier aspect of his character arcs to get swept up in the deus ex machina of enchantment and mysticism. Instead, they are immersed just enough in the recognizable real world as to have a profound effect on his protagonists. Magic might occur in their day-to-day lives, but it’s not enough to save them from their fates.
He is also adept at drawing brave and brilliant performances from his actors. This is an obvious showcase for Keaton, a performer given to high-energy, off-kilter beats, here playing what might somewhat uncharitably be referred to as an autobiographical role, but Norton (an actor whom I find myself always thrilled to see on screen, as if a talented, Brando-like recluse only deigning to perform when mood strikes) is also excellent. Shiner is a savant on stage — he learns the lines to the play somehow in the blink of an eye — constantly pushing his fellow cast members into an integral honesty on stage, but off of it, he’s anything but. The rest of his life is a series of irresponsible half-truths and misplaced aggressions, and Norton, who still bears the stigma of being a difficult and demanding type of actor, has a line of hard-earned empathy that bleeds from his pores like so much CO2.
Given the weight of the material, Iñárritu is still able to keep a light enough touch on the material that many of the sequences crackle with humor amongst the pathos (a scene in which Riggan gets locked outside the theater during a performance and has to circle around Times Square in his underwear is like something out of Noises Off). Theater is an insane endeavor, of course, impossible to achieve and vexing in every possible way. But somehow, some way, when everything is just so, and the meld of audience and performer is near seamless, it can still all be worth it.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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