BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) B
USA (119 mi) 2014 d: Alejandro González Iñárritu Official site
This is a self-reflective, existential dark comedy about the inner life of an artist trying to make a comeback of a career that’s taken a tailspin into irrelevancy, a film that resembles the real life career of actor Michael Keaton as Birdman, as Keaton played Batman twice but refused to do it a third time, while in the film he made the multi-billion dollar blockbuster movie Birdman three times, but refused to do another, where in both cases his career plummeted soon afterwards. Stylistically, González Iñárritu has made a freshly innovative and thoroughly entertaining film, grabbing the audience’s attention with a daring bit of supernatural energy on display, as Keaton has a continual dialogue with his inner self throughout the entire picture, where his darker, inner impulses speak in a no nonsense, profanity laden lower register that resembles the voice of Jeffrey Dean Morgan, but is, in fact, Keaton’s own. While expressing what appears to be telekinetic forces, which may only be in his imagination, the film gives the impression that he possesses super powers, while denigrating everyone around him as lowlifes and hangers on, while he’s the real star of the show. This alter ego is a nasty piece of business that often shows up as Birdman in costume, hovering around or even flying behind Keaton, spewing his venomous chatter that’s meant to puff up this fragile ego into believing he can do anything. Driven by a jazzy drum score by Antonio Sanchez that expresses a ferocious energy, becoming the second film, after WHIPLASH (2014), showcasing a feverish drumbeat, providing an incessant stream of improvisation for the actors to feed off. Perhaps just as quirky is the flashy technique of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, whose everpresent camera follows the actors around everywhere, in and out of backstage rooms, down narrow corridors leading onto the stage, as if the entire film was composed of a single shot. Like a run-on sentence, this technique never allows the audience to catch their breath, as there is no down time, no breaks in the action, where it feels as if something is always happening. This constant motion, along with the off-kilter atmosphere behind the scenes, feeds into the manic energy of continual interruption and confusion when staging a play, going through the incessant rehearsals, stroking the delicate egos, listening to the various demands, remembering the names of the stage hands, having to deal with last minute emergencies, where there’s simply no time to collect one’s thoughts.
Keaton is Riggan Thompson, a former super hero actor who is trying twenty years later to regain his credibility as an artist by adapting, directing, and starring in Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a collection of short stories from 1981, several of which were used by Robert Altman in Short Cuts (1993). One of the personal revelations is discovering Riggan attributes his choice of acting as a profession to a complimentary note he once received from Raymond Carver written on a cocktail napkin. Riggan has enlisted a rag-tag group of offbeat choices to inhabit this play, produced by Jake (Zach Galifianakis), his lowlife agent, best friend and personal attorney, starring first-time Broadway actress Lesley, a jittery Naomi Watts, a co-star he’s sleeping with, Laura, who may also be pregnant, the sensually alluring Andrea Riseborough, a last minute fill-in, Mike Shiner, Edward Norton, an egocentric New York theater superstar that guarantees increased box office, a loose cannon who thrives on method acting, is very specific about certain requested details, who’s also sleeping with his lead actress, while also reuniting with his own daughter fresh out of rehab, Emma Stone as Sam, a recovering drug addict still bitter that her father was never around, now serving as his assistant. Some of the best moments of the film are reserved for Stone, who never seems to disappoint. Keaton has always thrived on an understated, nervous energy, but here he is the butt of all jokes, constantly besieged by his alter-ego, a victim of his own increasingly dark hallucinations, much like the dancer in Aronofsky’s THE BLACK SWAN (2010), while the machinations of staging this play is a walking disaster, as everything that can go wrong does go wrong, becoming an absurd commentary on the supposed higher artistic realms of theater. What cinema brings into the landscape is the element of fantasy taking place in Keaton’s head, where at times he can float on air, or fly through the streets of New York as his character Birdman once did, or with the snap of his fingers make things explode with a barrage of movie special effects that seem hilariously cheap and silly when seen in this light. González Iñárritu seems more interested in using these techniques to get inside this perplexing character, who always seems on the verge of a breakdown while trying to maintain stability, which is interestingly enough the mindset of an actor, always challenged by the unfamiliarity of the next role.
Of course, this kind of thing has been done before, and to much better effect by John Cassavetes and the incomparable Gena Rowlands in Opening Night (1977), another troubled stage production that delves into the internalized anxieties of an actress who has doubts about playing the role, who thinks it’s all wrong, who wants it changed, even though it was written specifically for her. While Cassavetes grounds his film on the beauty of live theater, where the agonies and self doubts are brought into the rigorous rehearsals onstage, where the performance is the thing, bringing to life a living and breathing quality to every moment, González Iñárritu accentuates through artifice, where one of the more brilliantly staged moments is when Riggan takes the stage, but his words are drowned out by the immaculately beautiful and devastatingly sad orchestral music of Mahler, Mahler 9th Symphony (1/9); 1st movement; Bernstein ... YouTube (10:00), a soaring work that initially seems to float on air, adding a profound sense of eloquence and poetic grace. It’s the kind of ravishing moment that takes your breath away, that exists nowhere else in the picture, but in an instant, it’s gone. There’s another surreal scene where Riggan gets locked outside the theater where he has to walk half naked through the crowds of Times Square, where people immediately recognize him as Birdman, wanting to take selfies, calling out that name, as if from the depths of his own conscience, where he will forever be inseparable with the role, yet he also becomes an overnight viral sensation, attracting the interest of thousands who would otherwise not be paying attention to him at all, but this is the younger generation’s concept of fame. The problem is the film can’t sustain this kind of glorious energy, as there’s an uneven quality throughout and there are some questionable choices made as it winds down, where it all has to lead somewhere. As opening night approaches, everyone’s worries and self-doubts are magnified, exaggerated by the omnipresent voice of Birdman, who has utter disgust for the entire human race, whose contempt expresses the degree of Riggan’s self-loathing, where there’s apparently a reason he hasn’t been heard from in 20 years. Riggan loses his bearings, questioning the worth of it all, getting into a senseless verbal sparring match in a bar with the leading New York theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) who denounces the play without even seeing it, claiming he’s not a real theater person, that he’s a celebrity, a cheap imitation, despising his adolescent sense of entitlement. The film is, in fact, a portrait of egocentrism, where every sequence revolves around the star, where the light can either shine or it can literally extinguish itself.