BIRDMAN IS ALEJANDRO Iñarritu’s deliciously well written, brilliantly acted, many-layered grand finale to a pretty mediocre year of movies. It features Michael Keaton’s wonderful, Oscar-deserving return to prominence after two decades of sad obscurity (his last major outing was Robocop which like most of his movies since “Multiplicity” in 1996 or the voice of Ken in “Toy Story 3”, no one saw.)
Keaton is Riggan Thompson, an actor who, like Keaton himself, had walked away from a lucrative super-hero franchise… and into obscurity (the character grumbles about how invisible he is). In order to stage his big comeback, Riggan has decided to risk everything on a Broadway vanity project: an adaptation of a Raymond Carver book, re-written, directed and starring himself. He’s hoping the audience will forget the trivia of his Birdman character and see his true worth as an artist.
In an essentially binary world of truth or dare, the play is Riggan’s big dare to find the truth in the role he’s playing, and to face up to, or escape, the deeper truth of his serial failures: as father, husband, lover and, potentially, Broadway producer.
It’s a very self-aware work in which Iñarritu offers us multiple layers of what truth means…in a work of fiction. At a narrative level, Keaton’s character wrestles (at times literally) with dual alter-egos: the Birdman, an inner demon of his successful past, cajoling him to escape the truth of his present, sorry, collapsing world through the pretense of super-hero prowess; and his theatrical opposite number Mike (Edward Norton as a pitch perfect narcissist), the über actor, who, rightly, claims to be true only when he’s performing a role…pretending to be someone else. Perhaps in art, Iñarritu suggests it’s the actor’s honesty – in his pretense – that’s its own kind of truth.
When we meet him, Riggan is at the point of breakdown: he’s struggling to escape his past, but the grim truth of his present life – brutally described to him by his self-centered, proto-suicidal daughter, Sam (an excellent Emma Stone) – is driving him, daring him, to an escape into drink, destruction and madness. In the two or three days of the movie’s time-frame, Riggan must figure out how to confront the truth of his past, his demons and his expectant audiences.
Like Keaton, an acting tour de force is a pretty good place to start.
For “Birdman” not only offers us the quasi truth of Keaton’s own past (his post Batman decline) but the absurdist literal truth of the actor, Keaton, playing a role but actually walking down Broadway amongst ‘real’ passers-by in his underwear in one of Iñarritu’s many extended single take shots. (Not unlike Scarlett Johansson’s ‘real life’ pick-up stint in “Under the Skin”).
The movie repeatedly uses the ‘gimmick’ of extended, flowing takes. The director’s camera tracks along with the characters as they walk and talk and vertiginously take flight in sequences so seamlessly stitched together that the tracking almost becomes an additional, unseen character. The device works. It turns the audience into vouyers. It’s a technique that in Iñarritu’s hands does not impose itself on the content for mere effect: In his search to connect with his audience, Riggan time and again seeks to break through the theatrical fourth wall – he turns and addresses the audience, walks amongst them, even threatens them. So too does Iñarritu’s directing, both with its camera unflatteringly smack against Keaton’s wrinkled, unshaven face, and with his ‘walkabout actor’, seek to break through the cinema’s own fourth wall.
And it’s not only Keaton’s role that’s so close to home it feels like a biography. One of the areas Iñarritu takes issue with is the pornography (his word) of mass-pleasing escapist, super-hero cinema. If art is a search for truth, that kind of movie-making is the big lie. In a sense the Birdman is the dangerous alter ego not only of the main character, but of filmmaking in general. It’s not coincidental that the three main actors in the movie (Keaton, Norton and Watson) are all themselves ‘super-hero tainted’ (Batman, the Hulk and Spiderman’s girl).
More than anything, “Birdman” is a showcase of superb acting: Naomi Watts is Leslie, the aging ingenue, a woman desperately seeking to retain her self respect in this her first Broadway production; Zach Galifianakis is Jake, Riggan’s stressed out, money conscious producer (a long, long way away from the dreadful “The Hangover Part 3”); Lindsay Duncan (perhaps the only good ‘thing’ in “About Time”) is Tabitha, the icy, haughty NY Times reviewer, whose prejudice against Riggan (just an LA movie star who has had the temerity to launch in New York… where ‘real’ actors ply their trade) means that she’s prepping to kill the play, sight unseen.
(Iñarritu’s clear contempt for reviewers and art critics – “you risk nothing,” Riggan tells her, “what you do is lazy; you just put labels on things” – is so palpable that at times, it comes close to authorial intrusion)
But this is Keaton’s movie. What a comeback! Riggan is a pretty loathsome character. He’s inconsiderate, thoroughly self-centered (indeed, the entire movie is centered in his head), petulant and mentally quite a few bottles short of a case. But Keaton also shows us a side of the man whose fragility and vulnerability make him endearingly appealing. His super-hero alter ego is both a destructive self-deception and the simple fantasy of a child gone astray. It’s a character we root for, alter-ego and all, right up to the end.
BIRDMAN. Director (and principal writer): Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu (“Biutiful”, “Babel” “21Grams”). Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity”)