Mexican DJ turned filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu has so far made a name for himself as a director of weighty films with bleakly serious subjects in search of transcendence. Ever since his Spanish-language debut Amores perros, his 1999 Oscar-nominated film that had Hollywood knocking, it has been an uphill battle for the director to achieve the same level of respect. It seems what he needed was a tonal shift. The black comedy of his fifth feature film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), is that shift, as it sends up virtually every aspect of the entertainment industry with dark humor on a meta level. Though Iñárritu has often reached too hard to make big statements, Birdman feels breezy by comparison and still achieves the resonant kind of statement fitting of his aesthetic.
Michael Keaton plays actor Riggan Thomson with a complex dynamic of ego and insecurity, as he tries to reinvent himself during a midlife crisis. Just like Keaton, Riggan once played a famous superhero in the movies that spawned a series of sequels: Birdman (fun fact: there is indeed a Birdman superhero). Riggan groans about Robert Downey Jr. and Michael Fassbender as they rake in fame and fortune by donning superhero costumes in this new era of movies based on comic books with a mix of disdain and envy. He seems plagued by a bitter resentment that he hasn’t somehow been recognized for paving the way for the superhero movie star in some impractical way (maybe he’s secretly hoping for “Pioneer Superhero Tentpole” Oscar?). Yet, he also desires recognition as an artist, so he decides to adapt Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” for Broadway. Meanwhile, the voice of Birdman, in a husky growl not unlike Christian Bale’s interpretation of Batman’s voice, seems to always belittle him when he’s alone. Oh, and one more characteristic of Riggan’s worth noting: he displays powers of levitation and telekinesis when no one else is looking.
If the richness of the satirical implications of this character is not enough, there are many others who enter into Riggan’s world with their own quirks. Edward Norton does hilariously self-deprecating work as Riggan’s nemesis, Mike Shiner, the heroic stage actor who will save the play. Mike is literally cocksure. He strips to nothing backstage, in wardrobe, fists on hips, ready for his fitting. While Riggan strains for respect with his grave adaptation of serious literature, Mike oozes confidence in his craft that relies on method-like process. When on stage, he needs real gin to feel drunk and must follow his erection when he lies in bed with his actress girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts), who herself is a bundle of nerves in search of her own respect on Broadway. Riggan only wishes to earn appreciation as an actor with integrity and clashes with Mike over what Riggan sees as inappropriate behavior, but Mike wants Riggan to respect his process as essential to his craft. Hovering over that, Riggan’s best friend/manager/attorney Jake (Zach Galifianakis) sees integrity in making this production a commercially viable affair, but the constant collateral damage of ego puts him on edge. On the periphery, lackadaisically observing the ship sink and lusting after Mike, is Sam (Emma Stone), Riggan’s daughter and assistant.
All of these people pine for a sense of their own version of what is essential to their own vision of reality, which they hope will grant them some sense of value, but that means struggling against the other titanic egos that surround them, which is key to the film’s humor and drama. The generalizations are so piled up in this film that it would be unfair to fault it for presenting tropes or clichés. This is a movie about demolishing expectations where expectations often lead to disappointment. It thrives on generalization. But beyond that, Iñárritu presents it with a filmmaking style that at times defies the tenets of film language, adding yet another layer of meta reality to this satirical vehicle.
The editing in the film is invisible, but the story does not take place in real-time. Even though the entirety of Birdman seems like one take, with the camera slipping through corridors and other nice moments of trickery to meet the actors at various moments of crisis, the story covers several days. It speaks to the idea of theater where acting cannot lean on editing as a crutch. At the same time, it also speaks to the lack of connection between these people. There is no room for match cuts, associative cuts, shot-reverse-shot, etc. because no one genuinely connects. It’s also a departure for the director, whose films have often depended on action off-screen and silent moments of time trickling past cut and pasted together jarringly to add a sense of levity to the contemplation of his characters. It’s as if the film has lost a superpower, much like Riggan/Birdman.
The film’s musical accompaniment is worth mentioning. In his first film score, Grammy-winning jazz drummer and bandleader Antonio Sanchez — who, like the director, also hails from Mexico City — gives the film a chaotic, cacophonous rhythm with a free-jazz, percussion-centric score, speaking to the nervous, scatterbrain of Riggan. Sanchez’s presence is so vivid, he even appears in the film at a drum kit on more than one occasion, giving physical form to the harried Riggan’s nerves. The always amazing and fluid camera work Emmanuel Lubezki is also key to the film’s tone. His sharp focus not only presents unforgiving images of the creases of many a weary face but also highlights makeup and styling designed to make some of the actors look like birds. Whether this is intentional or not, it speaks to Riggan’s perception of his world and to the fact that this is also an alienating presentation of reality, keeping the audience at arm’s length, building toward a finale that no one can truly, definitively understand because this is Riggan’s world … and ultimately, just a movie.
In its hyper-real presentation of story, Birdman takes an almost encyclopedic survey of every trope, generalization and prejudice we might have about Hollywood and celebrity culture and in turn lampoons it in some way. Critics, the PR machine, social media, the idea of fame by viral video, sexual relations between actors, clashing egos, it leaves none of it out. Much of it is reductive, but it’s also offered in a spectrum: there is the cynical theater critic for he powerful “New York Times,” the serious journalist with the social/theoretical concerns of the art and the star-struck reporter who will believe any rumor as insight into the unknowable person behind the celebrity. Of course, the film also does this with the colorful actors at the center of the film but still does not forget the personnel behind the scenes, as well. With Birdman, Iñárritu sets out to bite the hand that feeds so hard and with such force so as to dazzle those bitten with stars. It’s a caricature filled with magical realism that never forgets entertainment value, inviting everyone to have a laugh at themselves.
Though it is implied that Riggan may or may not have super powers, whether or not he does is unimportant. What Iñárritu is doing with this character quirk is offering a metaphor for the power of celebrity, which Riggan is trying to suppress so his craft might be taken on its own terms. Ask any artist worth his or her own work, and they will tell you that they view celebrity with a wary eye. Galifianakis noted as much in his interview regarding the film in “Hollywood Reporter.” Recently, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau told me about it as if it exists outside of his control. It’s a double-edged sword that gives actors value, but that they do not have the same kind of control over. Scott Haze, another actor I interviewed, spoke about the prejudice that surrounds the work of his friend James Franco, who directed him in the underrated Child of God.
For all its smart satirical qualities, it’s hard to ignore a sense of genuine bitterness that informs the stories that make up Birdman. Iñárritu himself has had to combat high expectations from the beginning of his work in the U.S. But if you do not care to look behind the screwball farce of the action of the film, you will only be disappointed by this movie. It targets Hollywood as a business that thrives on celebrity to make its fortune at the sacrifice of people whose only dream was to express themselves in front of an audience before the machine gobbled them up, which is the true tragi-comedy of the reality of the entertainment business. What can you do? Enjoy the show!
Birdman runs 119 minutes and is Rated R (language, sexual humor and pathos). It has already opened in many theaters across the U.S. It opens in my area, South Florida, this Friday, Oct. 31. Fox Searchlight invited us to a preview screenings for the purpose of this review.
Update: Birdman arrives at Broward’s indie art house the Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale on Thursday, Dec. 25. It also won the Florida Film Critics award for best picture of 2014.
Previous update: On Nov. 7, it will be the premiere film at O Cinema’s newest theater in North Beach, at the former, newly renovated Byron Carlyle. (Update: due to technical issues the O Cinema premiere of Birdman was postponed. It now opens Friday, Nov. 21, and the cinema is honoring tickets from Nov. 7 for any Birdman screening at O Cinema Miami Beach).