Birdman is a cacophonous, daring movie about a washed-up actor who is giving his career one last chance by adapting Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love for Broadway. Riggan (Michael Keaton) was once a famous box office draw for a series of superhero pictures about a character named Birdman. But he decided to stop wasting his time in commercial junk, dig deep and become a “serious” performer.
But much like what happened to Keaton in real life post-Batman, the Oscar-caliber roles never came, and after a series of box office duds and small supporting roles, he fell off the map altogether. Riggan has everything riding on this play, which he stars in and is also directing.
But the production seems cursed, such as a supporting actor (a hilarious Edward Norton) who believes in Method to ridiculous degrees (he refuses to read the script, insisting on improvising all his lines, and drinks real booze on the set). Riggan’s ex-wife (Amy Ryan) is furious that he refinanced their home to pay for the play. The play’s first preview performance is an utter disaster, and Riggan begins to lose his nerve.
None of this describes the style and manner in which director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who is not known for light fare (Babel, Biutiful, Amores Perros), has shot the film. Working with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who also shot last year’s Gravity), all of Birdman takes place in one uninterrupted take with hidden edits. Even though the story spans several days, Iñárritu refuses to let you outside Riggan’s increasingly jangled head (Keaton is in almost every scene). There is no exit here.
The score is made up almost entirely of loud, grating percussion (in one shot, you can see the drummer playing the music in a room in the background). There are some huge laughs in Birdman, although the humor takes a little getting used to, and there are moments of great beauty and flights of sudden, startling fantasy, too.
Keaton, an actor whose best work has been overlooked by recent history, is essentially playing three versions of himself: The play’s director/star (for which he wears a horrible wig), his dressing-room self (where he takes off the hairpiece and unleashes his anger and frustrations) and quieter moments where he talks to his imaginary comic-book alter-ego, who keeps insisting he made a mistake by quitting the franchise.
Birdman takes advantage of every facet of Keaton’s talent, from his knack for absurdist comedy to his seemingly effortless ability to tap into graceful profundity without making a big show of it. Riggan is deeply damaged, but he’s also aware of it, which adds to his desperation to make his play a hit. If not, he knows he might slip over the edge and lose all hope forever.
The movie — the full title is Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) — is Iñárritu’s out-of-the-box salute to art, creativity and mad genius, and although some critics have misinterpreted the film as a self-indulgent mess, the movie’s daring and goofiness lets you know the filmmaker is in on the joke. A scene in which Riggan confronts the New York Times theater critic, who promises she’s going to kill the show before she’s even seen it, is not meant to be taken as Iñárritu pushing back again his haters; the scene is clearly and specifically only about Riggan, not critics in general.
What will mainstream audiences make of this odd-duck movie? I have no idea — I predict equal numbers of walkouts and cheers — but by taking us inside the nuts and bolts of a stage production, showing us not only the main players but also the invisible people behind the scenes, Iñárritu celebrates the insane amount of work that goes into this profession (the movie could have easily been about a film, too, but the enclosed location of a play works better). Birdman is strange and original, irritating and inspiring, and it makes you think twice about writing off art you don’t like as garbage just because it doesn’t play to your tastes.
As for the circulating claims that Iñárritu is a pretentious fraud, someone should call up Hitchcock, Kubrick, Spielberg and Scorsese and tell them to stop being so full of themselves and please make more generic movies, thank you. When someone pours so much of their heart into such a risky project, “fraud” is the last word that comes to mind. “Courageous” is the first.
Cast: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Zack Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Naomi Watts.
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Screenwriters: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo.
A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. Running time: 119 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Sout