Review: Birdman (2015)
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Screenwriters: Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo & Alejandro González Iñárritu
Cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Ryan & Lindsay Duncan
Runtime: 119 min // Certificate: 15
“You’re doing a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago, for a thousand rich old white people whose only real concern is gonna be where they go to have their cake and coffee when it’s over… because you want to feel relevant again. Well, there’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn’t even exist!” – Sam Thomson (Emma Stone)
Set almost entirely within the walls of a small theatre on Broadway, Birdman tells the tale of a washed-up action movie star, Riggan Thomson (Keaton; Batman), as he struggles to reinvent his career with a stage adaptation of the popular Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love”. Best known for his portrayal of the fictional superhero Birdman in three successful and popular blockbusters almost two decades prior, Thomson seeks acceptance and recognition from a new peer group – a clique, if you will, whom he believes to have much more artistic integrity than those he left behind in Hollywood – all while waging a war on multiple fronts against his insecurities, his paranoia and the external forces that, whether by intention or otherwise, appear destined to scupper his quest for greatness.
As the critics whom this very film takes great pleasure in shooting down in flames have fallen over themselves to tell us over the past few weeks (irony noted and accepted), Birdman is a multi-faceted concoction of contrasting ideas that refuses to be pigeon-holed into one particular genre. At face value it might come across as your typical “Hollywood is dead; long live Hollywood”, faux-satirical clusterfuck of pretentiousness and insularity that is all but completely blind to its own adherence to the ideals it purports to hate, but dig a little deeper and you’ll see that Birdman is more a subversive cinematic double agent, in that its vitriol for “low culture” is matched only by its disdain for the craven and redundant “art” that Thomson’s attempt at career reinvention comes to represent.
Modern culture, then, takes a beating from multiple angles, yet it is us – me, you; the audience at large – who must bear the brunt of Iñárritu’s scorn. In a world in which fame is just a tweet, a Vine or a drunken xenophobic rant on public transport away, both the producer and the consumer must be held accountable and forced to take some responsibility. For the viewer, there is no escape and no room for manoeuvre as Iñárritu (Amores Perros) throws us headfirst into the heart of the action, trapping us within the narrow corridors of the theatre along with the characters on the screen. He shoots the film as though through the eyes of a passive but culpable observer, gliding through the theatre and unearthing just a morsel of the grim reality beneath each individual’s façade. Characters come and go and time passes in the manner of a dream, yet there is one unifying constant that holds the piece together; us.
The inherent but intentional contradiction at the heart of Birdman thus rests on the audience’s shoulders. The casting of Michael Keaton in the role is no coincidence. We all know him best as Batman, and we’ve all gone out of our way to wax lyrical about how great it is to see him back at the top of his game after all these years. In multiple respects, Batman is our Birdman, while “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” is our Birdman (note the italics). We all love ourselves a celebrity and a megastar, yet once their most famous work has been forgotten or, in the case of Keaton’s Batman, updated, modified and replaced beyond recognition, so too are they. When they attempt a comeback, we view them with distrust. “What are they trying to prove?” we ask. As the film so eloquently argues, what we say we want and what we actually want from our art are two very different things. We abhor talentless celebrities and mainstream culture, yet in the same breath we lap it up and enable its existence. We throw money at it and claim we’re doing it “ironically”, all the while wondering why “real art” (which most of us can’t be bothered to seek out or fund) doesn’t get the praise it deserves.
This too is true of the characters in the film itself. Even after Thomson has poured his soul into his work and finally gotten some respect and admiration from the artistic clique, the Birdman creation lingers over him, sometimes quite literally, whispering in his ear and telling him that he will fail. Indeed, Thomson is at his most joyful and liberated when he dispenses with the charade and embraces his Birdman persona, outside the confining walls of the theatre. All the paranoia, the guilt and the uncertainty that defines Thomson as he attempts to wrestle his production back from the brink dissipates in those few scenes when he removes himself from the theatre and allows Birdman to “take control” so to speak. Heck, even Thomson’s fame and recognition comes not from his work on the stage but from a viral video of him pacing through Times Square in his underpants having accidentally locked himself out of the theatre during a preview show. Whatever happens on the stage is a lie. No one, not Thomson or his audience, is remotely interested in that. All the fame, the magic and the wonder happens outside of its walls, when the camera pulls back and allows him those few precious moments of liberation.
Again, this approach reflects Keaton’s own personal journey as an actor. Keaton’s “performance” feels so raw and genuine, and his character so lived in, that the tendency to reduce this intricate character study to little more than an introspective, semi-biographical assessment of his career can be forgiven, if not exactly accepted. Keaton juggles his character’s multiple personalities with such effortless naturalism, swinging from guilt to fury to paranoia to desperation and back again, often in the space of just a few minutes, that you can’t help but wonder where he’s been for the past twenty years. And yet, in its own cruel way, that is part of the point. Birdman has been a critical success, no doubt about it, yet in ten years’ time, Keaton will still be Batman, much like Thomson is never able to shake off the ghost and the influence of Birdman. It is, in a sense, a pessimistic metaphor for the death of artistic integrity, yet Iñárritu approaches things with just the right amount of cynicism and dark humour that the overall message seems not to be one of sorrow, but one of acceptance. Thomson is Birdman and Keaton is Batman, both of which are roles that bring so much pleasure to so many people, and what the hell is wrong with that?
To suggest that this is Keaton’s film, however, would be to do a disservice to the wealth of talent pouring from the stage and screen. Edward Norton’s (American History X) turn as a pretentious and troublesome actor who, unlike Thomson, is so confident in his abilities that he borders on recklessness, verges on revelatory, while Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man) and, perhaps surprisingly, Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover) – as Thomson’s daughter and agent respectively – both steal the show from under the nose of their co-stars on more than one occasion. In fact, Stone’s simultaneously twitchy but reserved turn as a young woman who feels shunned by her Father in favour of the adoration of people he’s never met might well be her best work to date. Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive), similarly, does some much-needed “reinvention” of her own with a performance that should hopefully help her crawl out from under the shadow of Princess Diana once and for all.
Believe the hype; Birdman is a highly accomplished film that juggles the trifecta of satire, drama and “magical realism” quite exquisitely. Iñárritu’s direction is focussed and disciplined, yet still unafraid to push boundaries, while Emmanuel Lubezki’s (Gravity) cinematography is a sliver of pure theatrical and cinematic extravagance. Sure, the film occasionally takes a few liberties and has a tendency to veer a little too close to flippancy in its dual-critique of “art” and celebrity, often with a tone that sometimes appears less self-aware than it perhaps needs to be (I still can’t quite decide whether the quote at the start of this review, in which Thomson’s daughter berates what she considers her Father’s inane desire for recognition at all costs, is tongue-in-cheek, self-critical or tragically oblivious to its own failings), but with so much bubbling away beneath the surface, the occasional bum-note or missed target is no major flaw. Besides, it can easily be argued that the film is less concerned with what it often suggests is the false conflict between “culture” and “art” than it is with society’s unenlightened approach to mental illness and our near frightful inability to discuss or confront it. That, however, is a whole other discussion for a whole other day…