Appearing on screen weeks after both Marvel and DC announced plans for world domination via the occupation of the world’s multiplexes between the years of 2015 and 2115, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s dizzying, hifalutin and technically-impressive Birdman aims several darts at the tiresome superhero output of the Hollywood machine while also seeking to prick the egomaniacal bubble of its credibility-seeking stars. It feels very timely indeed, and showcases a welcome lightness of touch hitherto absent from the Mexican auteur’s work, even if at times it is somewhat difficult to gauge just how withering and caustic he and his fellow writers are trying to be.
Often Birdman appears to be a celebration of the actor’s powers of transformation, though conversely it also highlights this as a peculiar blend of arrogance and pretension. Michael Keaton is on career-best form as Riggan Thompson, an out-of-favour star most famous for his earlier role as the superhero Birdman (the heavy-handed irony being, of course, that Keaton himself is arguably best known for playing Batman in Tim Burton’s original brace of superhero movies). The unhappy, unfulfilled Thompson has turned his back on the billion dollar series that brought him stardom and has decided to stage a highbrow adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love on Broadway, self-financing the initial run and drafting in his lawyer Jake (Zack Galfianakis, restrained) as producer. He has also employed fresh-out-of-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone) as his assistant, partly to save money but mainly so that he can re-connect with her after being absent from the family home for years, while his partner Laura (Andrea Riseborough) co-stars in the play and his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) visits him in the theatre.
The film, which is cleverly manipulated through editing and camera trickery so that it appears to be one continuous two-hour take, details Thompson’s struggles as the play nears its opening night. As well as directing and acting in the adaptation he must also contend with the mounting problems of his fellow actors: Laura is taken for granted by Riggan while first-time Broadway actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) must contend with her boyfriend, the primadonna method actor Mike (an electric Edward Norton). There’s even an embittered and influential New York Times theatre critic lurking ominously in a nearby bar, played by Lindsay Duncan, whose hatred of movie stars that seek instant credibility via barely-committed ‘big name’ theatre runs means that she intends to vengefully trash the play in print regardless of its quality. And to top it all, as opening night looms, Riggan appears to be losing the plot completely by communicating in private with his old Birdman character.
Magic realism crept into Iñárritu’s previous film, the relentlessly-downbeat Biutiful, in which Javier Bardem’s medium is able to communicate with the dead. Here the appearance of the Birdman character signals an examination of the supposed ‘transformation’ undertaken by serious film actors, many of whom regularly champion their own abilities during press junkets by stating that they ‘became’ a certain character during production, or were ‘consumed’ by the role, while also reaffirming the idea of the cinema screen and the stage as places where ‘magic’ happens. Iñárritu is smart enough to keep the Riggan / Birdman relationship on the back-burner for the majority of the film, and conjures up some intrigue from its ambiguity: the communication only occurs when nobody else is around, for example, and when we see the actor apparently fly to the theatre after a drunken night on a townhouse stoop the image is swiftly punctured by the sight of an angry cab driver following Riggan through the main entrance demanding payment. Has Riggan really developed powers of telekinesis, which he supposedly uses to drop a lighting rig on an incapable actor (Jeremy Shamos), or is this just a further sign of the deterioration of his mental health? On the one hand Keaton’s character appears to be going crazy; on the other hand Birdman’s appearances increase in frequency as Riggan gets to grips with the play he is directing (and, more importantly, the character he is portraying), gradually shedding the original, somewhat vain reasons fuelling the staging.
It’s hard to tell whether the writers are mocking the idea of actors being all-consumed by their roles or not. Without wishing to give too much away, by the end of the film Riggan has delivered a transcendental performance, and this is celebrated, though the writers of Birdman are also clearly poking fun at the lengths actors will go to in order to achieve this, especially regarding physical transformations. The prickly pretentiousness of serious thesps is lampooned throughout and there are plenty of laughs to be had from the dubious and wildly-unpredictable antics of Mike, whose own attempts to get under a character’s skin mean drinking on stage and even suggesting real intercourse, as opposed to simulated sex, to his on- and off-stage partner Lesley.
Mike is a respected theatre performer, as dismissive of Hollywood name actors as Duncan’s critic Tabitha, and interestingly it is these two who gradually dismantle Riggan’s carefully-rehearsed reasons for moving into theatre / adapting this particular Raymond Carver story. Both characters initially seem cruel in their withering dismissal of Thompson, with Shiner stealing Riggan’s anecdote about Carver for an interview and Tabitha denouncing him as a fake, but through their mocking cruelty they force the former A-lister to address his reasons for making the play and for taking up acting as a profession. Uncomfortable truths are told during two wonderfully-acted scenes in a bar, although they perhaps reveal Iñárritu’s own attitudes to critics and cred-seeking actors a little too easily. It’s interesting to note Riggan’s views about critics are soon forgotten when he actually gets a good review.
The film is also withering in its assessment of paying audiences: the main catalyst for public interest in the play is the reaction on social media to Riggan’s farcical jaunt around Times Square clad in nowt but a pair of underpants (male characters appearing in y-fronts alone is a recurring feature here that gently mocks the typical Batman / Superman costume), while Sam has no truck with the theatre world at all, caustically dismissing her father’s desire to appeal to a crowd of smug, privileged, middle-aged patrons during one heated conversation.
Birdman’s casting, as alluded to earlier, is interesting, though it appears to have divided critics; some have suggested it’s clever and others have been less impressed, arguing that the approach of employing ex-superhero actors in a film about an ex-superhero actor is arch to the point of being insufferable, and unsubtle in the way that it forces home the point that superhero movies having a stranglehold on Hollywood and its stars is A Bad Thing (though I dare say the budgets for the arthouse / indie films released by Fox Searchlight, such as Birdman, might not be so readily available if ‘sister company’ 20th Century Fox hadn’t raked in a billion or so from the X-Men franchise). Keaton’s own career has parallels to what we know of Thompson’s, of course, while it’s no coincidence that Stone – who, incidentally, is great – has appeared in the two most recent Spider-Man movies; Norton has history in that field too, having played Bruce Banner in Louis Leterrier’s so-so The Incredible Hulk a few years ago.
While I agree that there is a slightly smug, slightly self-indulgent aspect to this, in my opinion the casting does work in the film’s favour, and I say that simply because Keaton, Stone and Norton all excel. I also enjoyed the playful writing when the in-joke is taken even further, with Hollywood stars Jeremy Renner, Michael Fassbender and Robert Downey, Jr gently mocked: they are all listed as being unavailable when Riggan seeks another ‘name’ to increase interest in and ticket sales for his play, as a result of their on-going superhero franchise commitments. There’s even a prescient mention of Ryan Gosling, who has since signed up for his own cape duties, while George Clooney – another ex-Batman, of course – is the subject of one of Riggan’s insecurity-revealing dreams.
Throughout proceedings Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki follows the actors with his swooping, graceful camera as they themselves move in a well-choreographed fashion around the theatre, largely ignoring the mental boundary between off-stage and on-stage as well as the notion of ‘private’ spaces. The theatre is a claustrophobic and fairly dirty setting, with Riggan’s cluttered dressing room a focus, and it is a relief when a door is finally thrust open and the action moves to a rooftop or the exterior of the theatre; it’s almost as if you can breathe in that fresh New York air from the comfort of your cinema seat! When Riggan first bursts outside to meet Shiner for a drink it seems as though the entire world is suddenly available to him, even though the action is supposed to stay within a block throughout. This unusually-compact setting – we’re talking about a director who favoured city-and-continent-wide multi-threaded stories for his first three films, remember – allows for some inventive soundtrack work, too, particularly regarding the diegetic and insistent street performance of a jazz drummer.
Its cleverness may be dismissed as Oscar bait, and the Academy certainly loves a film about the movie industry, but ultimately Birdman is an original, involving work and it is a technically impressive one to boot. Keaton and Norton successfully send up the acting process via a game mix of farce and slapstick – their hissy-fit fight scene is a highlight – but they also have several separate moments of tenderness and vulnerability that increase the appeal of both characters. Stone’s performance marks her as one to watch, too, although I’m in two minds about her handling of the film’s final shot: it ends up as a botched attempt at a payoff.
While I’ve enjoyed all of Iñárritu’s films prior to Birdman this is definitely a step forward, tonally-different to his earlier, darker work, and it bodes well for the future that he has found another route to critical acclaim. That said this black comedy does have a spicy, vaguely malevolent streak, and its targets are broad: the prevalence of the superhero blockbuster is the most obvious, but there are a number of voices competing here with the intention of trashing actors, filmmakers, critics, stage directors and their audiences. Perhaps the Birdman character is actually an allegory of the director or a voice for Iñárritu himself: after all he, above anyone else, has the power to enable his lead actor to soar.
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., Armando Bo
Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan
Running Time: 119 minutes