Oct 15, 2014
Well, Alejandro González Iñárritu should certainly do comedy more often. This is the best film he has made since Amores Perros. He has always been gifted at the cinema of extreme emotion, and this material allows him to indulge in his trademark intensity without falling into sentimentality or melodrama. He has made a movie with a sense of humor. At last.
Now I can see why it is hard for the previews to convey the tone and the experience of this movie. Birdman, Or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance is a really ambitious film about art versus commerce, love versus adulation, fame versus talent, ego and creative risk taking.
Riggan Thompson (the much missed and wonderful Michael Keaton), is a has-been movie star who found celebrity playing Birdman in a Hollywood comic book franchise. To expiate his mercenary sins, he is now orchestrating a comeback, starring in, directing and producing a serious play on Broadway. He has all the fame in the world but he wants his prestige back.
Riggan is putting everything on the line to make this show work, even if no one, including himself, thinks he can pull it off. It is seen as the vanity project of a washed up star and it doesn't help that a voice in his head, that of Birdman himself, is constantly questioning his artistic pretensions. We are inside the head of this man as he navigates the treacherous waters of celebrity and creative ambition.
Iñárritu films this as one continuous shot with the help of the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, aided by digital stitching. Usually, this kind of daredevil style distracts from the story, and ends up giving the audience headaches, but Lubezki and Iñárritu make it work. It is a visual tour de force. The camera closely follows the characters in endless motion through the narrow backstage confines of the St. James theater. This mimics the experience of being in Riggan's shoes, dealing all at once with his fear of the unknown, the vertiginous demands of everyone around him, from his lawyer and partner (Zach Galifianakis), to his estranged daughter (an excellent Emma Stone), to the actresses in the play (Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough), to his unhinged costar (Edward Norton). In all the razzmatazz, Lubezki finds moments of repose, his camera always at the service of the actors. The lighting is precise, eclectic and beautiful. It is seamless, expressive work, which should be honored with a seventh Academy Award nomination.
Iñárritu's films have always had great energy and visual verve, but this one is actually fun. He elicits compelling, if over the top, performances from all his actors, but my favorite is Edward Norton, happily chewing the scenery as Mike Shiner, a crazy actor with lots of talent but not so much fame. Norton is so electric and fun as an enthusiastic thespian douchebag with a smidgen of vulnerability, he should be in every movie. Why is he not in every movie?
Antonio Sanchez's drum score gives the film an extra jolt of energy, which is a bit much. The drums work really well when no one is speaking, but they irritate when the characters strain to be heard above them. Luckily, Iñárritu, who is not known for his restraint, tempers this sonic assault with a soundtrack of beautifully chosen classical music for the more lyrical moments, which are very welcome.
Birdman is very meta, what with the Raymond Carver references, actors who have been in superhero movies playing actors who have been in superhero movies, and a dose of teasing whimsy we're not sure if it is all in Riggan's head or not. But if you strip the technical fireworks, the showmanship and the sometimes labored references, the raw emotions of all those needy egos are there and they manage to be truly touching. Riggan is a beleaguered character, and though his ego and his need for validation are immense, they take an enormous beating from all quarters. He is trying. He is serious. And what he is doing is, in his world, heroic. A fantastic (both for its greatness and for being totally contrived) confrontation between Riggan and Tabitha Dickinson, the faux chief critic of the New York Times (the great Lindsay Duncan) gives you both sides of the thematic crux of the story. She berates Riggan for cheapening art with his fame, and he reads her the riot act by saying that by writing a review she is risking nothing, whereas he is putting his entire life on the line. They both have a point. I did not get a clear sense of where the writers' sympathies are. Would we rather watch what seems a pretty awful theatrical adaptation of an important work of literature, or would we rather be entertained by a cinematic roller coaster ride? I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Something like Birdman, which is trying to be artistic in a very entertaining way.