By Linc Leifeste | October 16, 2014
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Writers: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Jeremy Shamos, Lindsay Duncan
Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) opens with a shot of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), fast-fading Hollywood star famous for once having played superhero Birdman in a series of blockbuster films, meditating in his dingy Broadway dressing room, dressed only in his white briefs, levitating in mid-air. We hear his mental conversation, voiced in a deep baritone voice, questioning how he ever wound up in such a state, in such a place, when he once was a huge star. It soon becomes apparent that the voice we hear is not that of Riggan but of Birdman himself (à la Keaton’s Batman voice compared to his Bruce Wayne voice), who lives on in Riggan’s troubled mind and from time to time attempts to crowd out Riggan’s own voice with his dark, domineering, violent vocalizations. It’s also quickly apparent that what we are seeing may not be reality but the skewed perceptions of Riggan’s split personality.
Riggan is on Broadway because he is attempting to salvage his dignity, if not his career, by staging an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Not only has he written the stage adaptation but he’s also financing, directing and starring in the play. Ambitious stuff, no doubt, but is it any good? And what exactly is his motivation for putting himself out there so boldly, for risking shame and rejection if he can’t make it work? Is he driven by artistic impulse or by a longing for respect or popularity or some combination of both?
Co-starring in the play beside Riggan are a desperate, fragile, insecure set of actors: Leslie (Naomi Watts), Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and Ralph (Jeremy Shanos). When Ralph, who is not performing up to Riggan’s expectations, is suddenly incapacitated by a falling piece of lighting on the verge of the play’s preview performance, he’s replaced by acclaimed stage actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who just happens to be sleeping with Leslie. A talented actor, Shiner’s inclusion is sure to sell tickets but he’s also a conceited manipulator who just might wreck the production through his search for the “truth” of his character and the play. Or by his attempts to bed Riggan’s daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), who is fresh out of rehab and working as an assistant on the play.
The film is crackling with energy and rife with conflict from multiple sources. There’s Riggan vs. Birdman playing out in his head, Riggan vs. Mike for dominance on the stage, Mike vs. Sam as he attempts to seduce her, Riggan vs the New York Times theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) who is threatening to eviscerate his play on principle, no viewing required, and Riggan’s producer (Zach Galifianakis) vs the chaos that is threatening to chew up the production and spit it out. The visual presentation of all this chaos and conflict is masterfully frenetic and exhilarating, aided by a adrenaline-inducing soundtrack courtesy of drummer Antonio Sanchez, scenes often appearing as long single shots as Riggan darts and dodges down hallways from dressing room to stage, while chased by his producer or fighting Mike. Likewise the presentation jumps back and forth between reality and Riggan’s fevered perceptions of the world as Birdman, with it being hard at times to know which you’re seeing, all of which imbues the film with a rich, imaginative, dream-like ambiance.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s cunning, innovative, exhilarating film digs deep into questions about our pop culture and the narcissism that underlies so much of it; success vs popularity, fame vs notoriety, art vs commerce. And for the most part, the film does an admirable job of posing questions without forcing answers, generally using a stealthy scalpel on the viewers instead of taking a hammer to their heads. There are a few missteps where obvious targets, such as the narcissism inherent in Facebook and Twitter and our need to capture every event on video or film instead of living in the moment, are too easily taken down, but for the most part this is a film that will admirably invoke more questions than provide easy answers.