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Birdman flies very, very high. Intense emotional currents and the jagged feelings of volatile actors are turned loose to raucous dramatic and darkly comedic effect in one of the most sustained examples of visually fluid tour de force cinema anyone’s ever seen, all in the service of a story that examines the changing nature of celebrity and the popular regard for fame over creative achievement. An exemplary cast, led by Michael Keaton in the highly self-referential title role of a former superhero-film star in desperate need of a legitimizing comeback, fully meets the considerable demands placed upon it by director Alejandro G. Inarritu, as he now signs his name.
The film’s exhilarating originality, black comedy and tone that is at once empathetic and acidic will surely strike a strong chord with audiences looking for something fresh that will take them somewhere they haven’t been before.
Dating back to his international breakthrough with Amores Perros 14 years ago, Inarritu’s films have always coursed with energy and challenges embraced. Here, he and his indispensable cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have gone the extra mile to make a film that, like a far more complicated and sophisticated version of what Alfred Hitchcock did in Rope in 1948, tries to create the illusion of having been filmed all in one take.
Birdman, which bears the rather enigmatic subtitle “Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,” is not only centered on the world of the theater but takes place almost entirely within or very near the venerable St. James Theater on West 44th Street. This is where faded big-screen luminary Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is about to begin previews for what he hopes will bring him renewed acclaim and respectability, ego boosters that have eluded him in the two decades since he decamped from the Hollywood mountaintop upon saying no to Birdman 4.
Of course, Riggan knows he’s fated to always be Birdman; he still keeps a poster from the franchise on his dressing room wall and the character’s voice sometimes squawks at him like a challenging alter ego. But he’s now put everything on the line, including his own money, to mount a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which he’s written, is directing and is co-starring in with Lesley (Naomi Watts), another film star making her Broadway debut, and Laura (Andrea Riseborough), a sometime lover who’s more keen on him than vice versa.
When the other male actor in the piece startlingly becomes incapacitated, Lesley’s boyfriend, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a major film name, immediately volunteers to step into the breach. This is a godsend for the box office but a wild card in terms of the quartet’s dynamics, as the quicksilver Mike is a fiendish manipulator (quite the jerk, actually). After unsettling Riggan at his first rehearsal by having already memorized his part and then demanding rewrites, Mike detonates the initial public preview by drinking real gin (this is Carver country, after all) instead of water onstage.
More raw nerves are supplied by Riggan’s straight-from-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone), whom Dad has perhaps misguidedly engaged as his personal assistant. Riggan has to listen to Sam’s tirades about how his resistance to Twitter and blogging make him even more of a has-been than he was already, this on top of Laura’s news that she’s pregnant and his concerns over what outrage Mike might provoke at the second preview.
There are enough awkward predicaments, secret liaisons, theatrical pranks, opened and closed doors and offenses given and taken in Birdman to fill a Feydeau farce. But while Inarritu, who wrote the script with his Biutiful co-screenwriter Nicolas Giacobone, playwright Alexander Dinelaris and The Last Elvis director and co-writer Armando Bo, certainly triggers any number of dark and even catch-in-your-throat laughs, he’s out for bigger game here on several fronts.
Riggan’s struggle to regain self-respect and a sense of accomplishment is an ambition attacked as sheerest vanity by Sam and Mike, who enjoy provoking him further by pursuing a little dalliance. Beyond this central subject, the film takes vivid X-rays of such matters as creative egos and insecurities, spontaneity versus careful planning, what one does or does not do with power and influence, the positives and negatives of fame and the contrast between the public impact of a controlled event like a theater performance and an impromptu happening such as Riggan’s sprint through a jammed Times Square wearing nothing but his underpants (don’t ask).
Propelled by outbursts of virtuoso jazz drumming by Antonio Sanchez, the story’s action spans several days but plays out in a visual continuum of time unbroken — until the very end — by any evident cuts; it’s as if the already legendary opening 13-minute take in Gravity had persisted through the entire movie. It’s no coincidence that the same cinematographer, the incomparable Lubezki, shot both films, although the effect here is very different; as lucid and controlled as the camerawork may be, it’s also bold, propulsive, even raw at times and invariably in the right place at the right time to catch the actors as they dart in and out, get in each others’ faces or ponder the effect of what they’ve just said or done to someone else. The scene transitions are handled with breathtaking seamlessness and, once you realize what’s going on and stop watching for signs of cuts as the camera goes through a door or enters a dark space, you get into the groove of a film whose rhythms are entirely controlled by the movement of the performers in relation to that of the camera — without the subtle visual disruption that even the most graceful cut must make.
If there is a problem from a dramaturgical point of view, it’s that the roles of the play’s other actors, to some extent Mike but more so Laura and Lesley, recede instead of deepen as opening night approaches. And one scene, which feels more like score settling than anything real, simply doesn’t ring true: In a theater district bar, Riggan runs into the formidable Tabitha (a withering Lindsay Duncan), the all-powerful drama critic for the town’s (once) all-powerful leading newspaper. When he quietly offers her a drink, she tells the man to his face that he’s an unwelcome Hollywood interloper on her turf and promises that, even though she hasn’t seen it yet, “I’m going to kill your play.” Vendettas of this sort might have been pursued on occasion in the old days, but for a critic to announce her intentions like this directly to the artist seems all but impossible, even ridiculous, today; the victim would likely call the paper’s arts editor at once.
An actor who himself has waited a very long time, and perhaps with diminishing hope, to make a comeback, Keaton soars perhaps higher than ever as a thespian with something to prove when not wearing a funny suit. Casting any sense of vanity out the window — every vestige of aging skin and thinning hair is revealed by the camera — the actor catches Riggan’s ambition and discouragement and everything in between; he’s criticized and beaten down, even, and perhaps especially, by those closest to him, although he does receive some reassurance and understanding from an unexpected source, his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan). Keaton skillfully conveys how this old bird can let even the most alarming setbacks just slide off his once-feathered back to get on with the show, one his whole future rides upon — unless, of course, it doesn’t.
Norton is crackerjack as the bad boy actor whose gigantic ego does constant battle with equally large insecurities, while Stone stands out among the women, particularly in two nocturnal theater rooftop scenes she shares with Norton (in one, they play a nifty little session of Truth or Dare). Zach Galifianakis plays it straight as Riggan’s exasperated producer and attorney.
Shot in 30 days almost entirely at the St. James, this is a film that will excite discerning viewers but will likely electrify professionals in the popular arts, primarily because it’s a work that seeks to go beyond the normal destinations for mainstream films — and manages to make it to quite an exciting place.
Production companies: New Regency, M Productions, Le Grisbi Productions
Cast: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Lindsay Duncan, Merritt Wever, Jeremy Shamos, Bill Camp, Damian Young
Director: Alejandro G. Inarritu
Screenwriters: Alejandro G. Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Producers: Alejandro G. Inarritu, John Lesher, Arnon Milchan, James W. Skotchdopole
Executive producers: Christopher Woodrow, Molly Conners, Sarah E. Johnson
Director of photography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Production designer: Kevin Thompson
Costume designer: Albert Wolsky
Editors: Douglas Crise, Stephen Mirrione
Music: Antonio Sanchez
Rated R, 120 minutes
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