Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
Dir: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Self-consciously clever and provocatively satirical, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is an ambitious, acid-tongued oddity. It skewers actors, Hollywood, comic-book movies, social media, and most everything else that’s populist and prevalent in our society. It fights pretension with pretension and it’s a movie that just may hate movies. Challenging but technically impressive, Birdman’s also laden with a murderer’s row of actors doing their level best and orbits around an amazing central performance from a re-ignited Michael Keaton at his unhinged peak. If nothing else, Birdman will convince audiences that Keaton may have been dealt a bum hand following his Batman heyday but he’s always had the chops and presence to stand with the best actors of his generation.
Keaton is Riggan Thomson, a past-his prime former action star of the Birdman franchise (an obvious Batman analogue) trying to regain his artistic integrity by staging a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Haunted by his past success and current low status on the Hollywood totem pole, he’s introduced floating 3 feet off the ground and cross-legged, as his gruff inner voice speaks aloud his thoughts, self-doubts and fears. This type of heavy surrealism comes and goes throughout the film and is a clear signifier of Riggan’s eroding sanity. Keaton plays the role to the hilt with a wide-eyed fervour reminiscent of a possessed man speaking tongues. It’s as though the intensity of Keaton’s Bruce Wayne brandishing a fireplace poker against Nicholson’s Joker in ’89 Batman has been brought alive here for an extended bout of mania (“You wanna get nuts?!”). There’s less bombastic emoting as well, lest we forget that Keaton is equally adept at both comedy and drama. The movie has a strong centre in Keaton’s Riggan, and as an actor’s showcase alone it succeeds wondrously. Less clear is the message of the movie itself, which can sometimes feel like finger wagging combined with holier-than-thou explorations of the artistic process.
Iñárritu seems to be speaking directly to his critics at one point, as Riggins excoriates a powerful New York Times Broadway critic who intends on savaging his Carver adaptation sight unseen. The usual argument that “those who can’t do, critique” is brought up in the type of scene that narrowly skirts breaking the fourth wall. Here and elsewhere Iñárritu seems to delight in walking the fine line between self-awareness and outright pretension. Philosopher Roland Barthes is brought up in an earlier interview between Riggans and the press, with the implication waved off by Riggan’s oblivious publicist. A façade for a Tom Hanks play (“Lucky Guy”) appears in the background of a scene, seemingly mocking Riggan’s Sisyphean struggle. Riggan is adapting and directing a play meant to bring him back to artistic prominence in a film where Iñárritu is doing the same, and thus the Ouroboros snake swallows its own tail in a story about stories where real life and fiction entwine and play off one another.
Birdman is also staged as one continuous shot, a concept that must have been informed by Iñárritu’s Mexican peer Alfonso Cuarón’s mastery of the form (which began in earnest in Children of Men and was taken to its extreme in Gravity). You can see where the cuts are made (there’s more than a few fades to black as characters West Wing their way around the labyrinthine theatre) and there are even some nice time lapse shots, which help to execute the idea with grace while avoiding undue attention. It’s a neat gimmick that lends immediateness to the film as the camera gets uncomfortably close to its characters. Keaton’s lined face is so expressive and the camera so close that we seem to live inside his head for the two hours of Birdman. And it’s a weird place to be.
The soundtrack is composed of off-kilter jazz and I think the movie itself strives for that kind of improvisation and freedom. The closest comparison I can think of in terms of tone is Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly. Both are equally experimental in the ways they play with form and function, and are sometimes at risk of becoming overt speeches that lack subtlety. There’s a moment late in the film when Keaton’s Riggan goes full Armageddon, with explosions and special effects lighting up the screen in an approximation of all the blockbusters that Birdman so readily mocks. It seems to be rubbing our face in the shit we like and chastising us for it at the same time. At that point Birdman most closely resembles Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, a film that masterfully manipulated its audience while breaking the fourth wall and shaming them all the same. The satirical elements are both well-observed and often laugh out loud funny, but it’s hard to shake that bitterness at its core.
It’s worth noting the strong supporting cast that Iñárritu has gathered for Birdman, many of whom are playing off their public personas in much the same was as Keaton. Zach Galifianakis is Jake, Riggan’s best friend and attorney. At times the voice of reason but just as self-serving as anyone else, Jake gets some great lines and a chance for physical comedy in a welcome departure that’s not too broad. Naomi Watts and Edward Norton play both lovers and actors in Riggan’s play. Norton’s widely-reported penchant for re-writing scripts (see: American History X and The Incredible Hulk) appears here and Norton himself throws himself into the role in what might be the second-best performance of the film. Watts gets a chance to play an actress, not unlike her breakout role in Mulholland Drive, and reminds us again that she does steely resolve mixed with brittle self-doubt as good as anyone. Emma Stone plays Riggan’s fresh out of rehab daughter and does it well – suggesting a deep inner life that extends beyond the borders of the movie. Amy Ryan and Andrea Riseborough round out the main cast as Riggan’s love interests both past and present. They’re both predictably strong, but serve as mostly mirrors for Riggan to see himself through.
Overall, Birdman is dizzying and wearying, a high-wire act that you can’t help but be in awe of even though it falters. Full of chutzpah and admiring of artistic excellence while it attempts its own, it’s not easily digestible and may give you an ulcer afterwards. A character quotes Shakespeare at one point, stating “Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing” in a clear case of Iñárritu anticipating and baiting those that may find fault here. It’s a canny bit of writing in a movie that’s full of similar nods and I think I both love and hate it. It’s these strong feelings it evokes, both positive and negative, that may serve as Birdman’s eventual legacy.