Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
This film is going to stew around in people’s heads for a long time, and rightfully so. I have yet to see “Amores Perros,” his first feature, but I’ve greatly admired all of the other films Alejandro González Iñárritu has directed– “21 Grams,” “Babel” and “Biutiful.” Not a single one of them is “fun,” strictly speaking, but it’s fascinating watching him work within a place of real darkness that illuminates the humanity in his characters, which felt especially true of “Biutiful,” which is probably the one that stuck in my head the most after seeing it…until now. “Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)” is different– a highwire act of creativity bursting from the screen that finds dark laughs underneath the bruised psyches of the characters.
Bruised is putting it mildly when discussing Riggan Thomson, an actor who we first see in his tighty whiteys, levitating off the ground, while a gruff voice is digging into his head. The voice, we come to realize, is that of Birdman, the superhero character Thomson played to great success and notoriety on the big screen in three films in the early ’90s before hanging up the cowl. Now, Thomson is long struggling, with an ex-wife (Amy Ryan, moving) who still supports him, and a daughter (Emma Stone, excellent), who just got out of rehab. He is writing, directing, and starring in an theatre production of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, currently in previews, and his is trying to relax. But the previews are a disaster, and that voice of Birdman’s is really digging itself into his head, calling him a failure, and trying to make him see that he’s better than what he’s doing. He’s Birdman, motherfucker, in no uncertain terms. What is he doing on the stage?
That’s just one of the crazy complications involved in the screenplay by Iñárritu, Nicolas Giacobone, and Alexander Dinelaris, which seems like an even more perverse twist on the showbiz drama than Darren Aronofsky delivered in 2010’s “Black Swan.” That seems like an utterly predictable piece of work compared to “Birdman,” however, which takes the dramatic character study tone of Iñárritu’s previous films, and adds a devious comedic streak that has us laughing uproariously even as we’re trying to keep up with the film’s breathless pace. For all the ponderous profundities “Birdman” engages in as we see Riggan come undone as his passion project seems on the precipice of falling apart, this is one of the most aggressively paced films of 2014. Iñárritu has cut loose from the more “big picture” scope of his first three films, and is digging deep to search for personal truth. Iñárritu does that by following Riggan and the people around him up close, with a watchful eye in Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera, which has the illusion of a continuous, single take through most of the film. It’s a highwire act of visual imagination that’s matched by a percussive score by Antonio Sanchez that shows off great versatility in conveying the necessary emotions along with existing classical excerpts at just the right moments.
Iñárritu has more on his mind than just cinematic tricks, though– this is a film about the type of legacy we want for ourselves. If we’re best known for one specific thing, can we live with that? Will it bother us? Is entertaining people all that matters, or should a greater truth be our goal? And what is that truth for ourselves? These are all part of the existential crisis Riggan finds himself in as his play, which he hopes will return him to relevance beyond Birdman, gets ready for the lights of Broadway. He has sunk his own money into this production, which is always a risk, but one he and his manager/producer (played by Zach Galifianakis in the most shockingly subdued work of his career) believe in. The reason Riggan chooses Carver’s work is personal (a note he got from the great author when he was younger inspired him to become an actor), and definitely puts the spotlight on him to make it work. When one of his actors gets knocked out by a falling light during rehearsal (leading to one of the funniest moments in the film), he’s disarmingly relieved (it just wasn’t working), but it leads to bigger headaches when one of his leading ladies (Lesley, played by Naomi Watts in her best performance since “Mulholland Drive”) suggests her boyfriend, Mike Shiner. An accomplished actor, Shiner will bring prestige to the production, and sell tickets, but in terms of his “method,” he makes Marlon Brando seem like a friendly puppy when it comes to working with him. Shiner is played by Edward Norton, who has a bit of a reputation for being difficult himself, and Norton hits a grand slam in pushing everyone’s buttons, including Riggan’s daughter’s, and the two have a couple of scenes on the theatre building’s rooftop that get to emotional truths through the age-old game of Truth or Dare. Juvenile? Not when you have Stone and Norton pushing each other into emotional corners both characters seem afraid to go into.
When all is said and done, though, the on-screen MVP is very clearly Keaton, who does some of the best, most manic work of his career, in his best performance since “The Paper.” It’s easy to read this story as autobiographical of Keaton, since he famously left the role of Batman after two films when his “Beetlejuice” director, Tim Burton, left the franchise, but that would be a disservice to the imagination Iñárritu and his collaborators bring to the film. That includes a near-naked romp through Time Square to a hungover Riggan being followed around by a gruff-voiced Birdman (Keaton also) like a wicked Jiminy Cricket that leads to apocalyptic visions. Bold stuff, which is seen with an equal sense of reality that allows us to believe everything we see on the screen, including an ending that has us asking further questions when another film would be answering them. It’s a fearless, terrific tour de force, and though it’s tempting to claim a more important role for one person over another in it’s success, this is a group effort where all the people behind it share in what a fantastic work it is.