ALEJANDRO González Iñárritu can never be called deficient in his ambition. Never one to shy away from the dense, ‘hyperlink’ narrative in muddled sprawls like Babel, Iñárritu’s apparent determination to make sense of The Way We Are has resulted in – now bear with me here – a paean to the transcendental apotheosis of the artistic spirit.
If that sentence made you regurgitate yesterday’s shepherd’s pie, then Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) might not be your cup of green tea. Look past the vaulting intention of its voice of God, however, and you’ll find a dazzlingly accomplished work that’s as funny and absorbing as it is cynical and self-absorbed. It’s a film that’s unafraid to hurl sweeping monologues at its audience; or, for that matter, its immaculate performers, all of whom are at their best.
With eloquence as grand as the theatre in which it is primarily set, Birdman is a duly theatrical film, incorporating Shakespearean imagery (and an entire monologue from Macbeth) into its meta-tinged look at Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed-up Hollywood actor. Having once played the titular superhero in several blockbusters, Riggan is fighting to achieve artistic integrity in adapting the Raymond Carver short story, ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’, amidst a rolling parade of problems.
Among the cast of this circus are his harried lawyer (Zach Galifanakis); his wayward daughter Sam (Emma Stone); the rampant egomania of Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), his lead actor, and his ex-wife (Amy Ryan), all tangled in a complex web of splintering relationships. Not the least of these problems is the gravelly voice of Birdman himself, barking his dismissal of Riggan’s ambition when left alone with him.
This is an actor’s dream, through and through. No doubt drawing from his own experience as Batman, Keaton delivers an incredible performance that reaffirms his brilliance after years in the critical and commercial wasteland (see: Jack Frost). Constantly on the verge of falling apart, his Riggan is imbued with pathos, resolve, and overflowing with regret and reflectiveness. Keaton is never intimidated by his character’s kaleidoscopic emotional range (and the speed with which he lurches along it), choosing instead to take the material and run headlong into the abyss. It’s mesmerising.
In Ed Norton, playing up to his own real-life label of “difficult to work with”, Keaton finds a perfect balance to thrive on. Shiner’s self-assurance and genius is captivating, his repeated insistence on “the truth” hampering the production time and again. Norton is a livewire, an antagonising id, pushing Keaton into further greatness; the scenes between the two are simply fantastic. Both men’s nominations at this year’s Oscars are thoroughly deserved.
Of the supporting performers, Galifanakis’ turn is perhaps the most under-appreciated and surprising. Though still playing to his comedic strengths, Galifanakis brings lovely depths to Jake, Riggan’s forever-flustered lawyer. Their friendship, in spite of all the setbacks, is perhaps the sweetest part of the whole film. It’s a shame that the film’s pace is too breakneck to dedicate much time to it, and the same problem applies to the female characters.
Emma Stone’s Sam is characterised as a recovering addict in danger of falling back into her old ways… and that’s about it. Naomi Watts’ first-time-Broadway actress is given little beyond flapping her nervous gums and being Riggan’s ex, while Andrea Riseborough and Amy Ryan are even more short-changed as his current girlfriend and his ex-wife respectively. None of the women are nearly as layered as Riggan, and are generally defined by their relationship to him and/or Shiner. For a writer/director as gifted as Iñárritu, it’s a missed opportunity.
Much has been made of the “single-take” format of the film, itself a clever illusion. There are, at least, seven cuts in the film – some more obvious than others – but the effect is no less dizzying. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, penned in between backstage walls and long, long close-ups. The score is, largely, an extended drum solo that swoops in unannounced to racket up the tension. The script bounces like ricocheting bullets, Riggan’s exhausting tribulations mounting as the camera lilts and hovers, galloping in perpetuum.
Though several moments could benefit from a pause for breath – most notably intimate scenes between Norton and Stone, Keaton and Ryan – the pace never slackens for a moment. This is what Riggan’s psychological landscape is: A confusing, swirling battleground of past scars, fractured families and breaking points. Thanks to the incredible cinematography from Emmanuel Lobezki (Gravity, Tree of Life), this fraught emotional melting pot is given a masterful canvas.
Birdman’s greatest strength – its terminal velocity – is also its greatest weakness. The film has no restraint, throwing all its ideas against the wall with such savagery that they’re falling to the floor before we can salvage them. Mere moments after Keaton wreaks hallucinated chaos in downtown New York, via fireballs and giant mechanical birds, he’s brutalising theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) for perceived dilettantism. There’s simply no time to absorb much of what’s being said before another grandstanding monologue cartwheels into view.
Its attitude to criticism, as embodied by Tabitha, is also a grievance – she’s less human than Ratatouille’s cartoonishly acerbic Anton Ego. Even he is afforded some equity, while Tabitha’s pledge to destroy Riggan’s work before actually seeing it is an act of petulance so absurd (and unprofessional) it rips us right out of the film. She’s not even a step above the Roger Ebert parody in Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla; at least he had some good lines. It smacks of bitterness on Iñárritu’s part, a tactless response to the criticism he received for Biutiful.
But this is the same Iñárritu exalting the artistic spirit to the extent that his characters endlessly – endlessly – talk about it. Subtlety has never been this strong point. Though developed in his own right, Riggan – particularly during the aforementioned confrontation with Tabitha – often serves as Iñárritu’s mouthpiece, and we rarely escape the sensation of being lectured to, especially when it’s being screamed at us. “I’m an artist!” Riggan yells, and we’re expected to not only believe it, but have stars in our eyes as we behold it.
Beneath Iñárritu’s gambit of lauding the greatness of (his own) creative endeavour is a true, deeply cinematic spectacle. Birdman is a fantastic piece of work that, in spite of all its conceits, never feels gimmicky. It’s from an auteur at the peak of his powers, even if his self-regard – only occasionally – leaks through the frames. It triumphs because of its audacity, not in spite of it.