Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Screenplay: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alexander Dinelaris, Nicolás Giacobone, Armando Bo.
Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Ryan, Andrea Riseborough, Lindsay Duncan, Craig Mums Grant, Frank Ridley, Bill Camp.
“Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige”
Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu is not normally known for his jeu d’esprit and has seemed more comfortable while dealing with heavily pessimistic and sombre themes. His previous films Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful are all excellent works but they require serious commitment to get yourself through their excruciatingly downbeat material. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that his latest effort in Birdman is ultimately about the fractured and fragile psyche of a man on a seemingly downward spiral. However, Birdman shows another side to Iñárritu’s talents; black it may be but he now surprisingly displays a great talent for comedy.
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) was once a massive Hollywood star that made his reputation playing the superhero Birdman. However, his career faded after the third instalment of the franchise and he now finds himself working on the Broadway stage. He’s determined to prove his worth as a real actor and director by adapting a Raymond Carver play but problems with his cast, his family and his own fragile mental state threaten to sink his ambitions.
Films within films have often been a theme throughout filmmaking. To become self-referential is a bold move. Robert Altman’s The Player or the surreal work of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive are notable works that have toyed with the life imitating art imitating life structure. It can be hard to pull off but these films are just a couple of examples of when it’s done right and Iñárritu’s latest can now consider itself to be on the same level.
On previous evidence, Iñárritu has proven to be a very clever director. He has always had a grasp on his material and delivered their fractured structures and timeframes with deftness and consummate skill. His work on Birdman is as impressive as he’s ever been but it’s the handling of comedy that’s impresses most. Not only is he able to capture the absurdity and quirks in human behaviour and competing ego’s but he also utilises these behaviours to create an inventive and original farce.
Employing the likes of Emmanuel Lubezki as director of photography is also a genius stroke. In a short space of time, Lubezki has become one of the most respected cinematographer’s in the business and if you look at his work on Gravity last year or his work here, you can easily see why. He manages to keep the camera constantly moving throughout the films entirety; one minute we’re focused, up close and personal, on the actors before sweeping through claustrophobic corridors, upstairs and down to find another dramatic moment. The film wasn’t shot as one continuous take but it’s miraculously made to look like it and credit must go to editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione for their seamless work on Lubezki’s constantly mobile camerawork.
As the long, seemingly continuous shots grab your attention, though, so too do the performances. Across the board, everyone delivers. Amy Ryan and Andrea Riseborough are given small roles but they’re by no means ineffective. Naomi Watts produces the emotional quality she always does and Emma Stone really sinks her teeth into the conflicted and tortured daughter role. Again, Zach Galifiniakas is given a small role where he only sporadically appears throughout the story but whenever he does, he commands a surprising range of emotions. I was very impressed with his dramatic work when he’s normally considered a comedy actor. From the supporting players, though, it’s Ed Norton who shines brightest. It’s been a while since Norton has had a role that he’s able to reaffirm his talents but he finds it here. Again, self-referential, Norton sends himself up. He has a reputation for being difficult to work with but bravely embraces a character that similarly reflects his acting methods. As a big admirer of Norton, I can only hope that this sees him back where he belongs. Which brings me to the leading man; I’ve never really been too kind or retrained on my dislike for Michael Keaton. I’ve often found him to be quite a self-conscious actor and could never shake off the feeling that most of his work is nothing more than a performance. He never allowed me to suspend my disbelief and for any actor that is a major demerit and (to be brutally honest) unforgivable. That being said, as Riggan Thompson, Keaton wonderfully parodies himself and I have to hold my hands up here… he’s absolutely outstanding in Birdman. It’s by far his finest work to date and a role that’s tailor made for him. Having successfully donned the Batsuit in Tim Burton’s take on the dark knight, Keaton never really reached those heights again. He had the occasional role that provided him with reasonable supporting hits but, for the most part, Keaton had had his day. This is the film that will, no doubt, bring him more work where his fans will rejoice in seeing his solid return.
I was honestly one for passing Birdman by. I do enjoy the works of Norton and Iñárritu but when I heard about Michael Keaton headlining a film, I considered giving it a wide berth. However, the buzz surrounding it left me with no choice but to check it out. I’m glad I did as it’s an accomplished piece of work that explores the weighty themes of the human ego, past successes and the inability to come to terms with failure. Meanwhile, it satirises showbiz, and in particular, the superhero hero genre. Everyone from Woody Harrelson in The Hunger Games to Robert Downey, Jr in his “tin-man get up” takes a dig but ultimately the film is one big in-joke that manages to tread a fine line between fantasy and reality.
Trivia: Given the unusual style of filming long takes, Edward Norton and Michael Keaton kept a running tally of flubs made by the actors. Emma Stone made the most mistakes, Zach Galifianakis made the fewest.