In numerous ways, Birdman is miraculous. For starters, it’s a miracle it exists. It’s unapologetic in its sarcasm, and makes no bones about the targets it lines up for an almighty mocking. Here’s a superhero film with no delusions about its central hero being super; for all the assistance CGI can offer, Birdman shares more comic-book spirit with American Splendor than The Dark Knight. At the time of writing, something in the region of forty superhero movies are at some stage of development or production. This phenomenon appears critic-proof, so a film taking a potshot at their increasingly-bloated and convoluted omnipotence proves both an inevitability and a necessity. Birdman will save us!”
It’s hard to believe that superhero flicks were once a novelty, with no guarantees of success. Those were the days when Tim Burton still made solid work and Batman was more than a bit of a goth. 25 years after Burton’s first Batman brought the Dark Knight to filmic life, Michael Keaton brings his cape out for an airing. He had to be the only choice for the role of Riggan Thompson; Birdman’s ability to flip expectations on their head begins by making this actor’s baggage a welcome burden. Riggan is a washed-up actor, having had little success since playing the eponymous Birdman in a trio of outings twenty years previously. Despite starring in some higher-profile films in the last couple of years, Birdman is the biggest thing to happen to Keaton since Jackie Brown. We first find his Thompson in a crummy off-Broadway theatre, in a meditative position but apparently floating off the ground. Why this is happening, or why his gruff-voiced alter ego is delivering opinionated voiceover is not immediately clear, but from the off we’re invited to go with the rhythm. Unlike, say, most superhero movie trailers, all will be revealed gradually.
In a last-ditch attempt to jump-start his career, Thompson is directing, producing and starring in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Anyone who’s read it knows that this is a fool’s errand. Getting Birdman right could have turned into a similar folly for Alejandro González Iñárritu, with the director/co-writer potentially overreaching to escape the shadow of the worthy, miserabilist dramas that have defined his career up to this point. Amores Perros was the high point, and the films just got more ambitious and more dour. Discovering his funny bone can only be a good thing, but marrying it to his brand of ambition is a gamble. Fear not; ambition is Birdman’s fuel. It aims to do so much that the fact most, if not all, of it works is another of its miracles. As well as the superheroics, it’s a film obsessed by theatricality, and the associated freedoms and limitations. Shot and edited to give the impression of one impossibly continuous take, Iñárritu’s film invokes the same rebelliousness that spurred Hitchcock and Sokurov’s one-take wonders, and is driven by its own brand of kinetic energy. The camera rarely stops moving. Theatrical acting and production is always heightened, pitched a little closer to hysteria than what’s demanded by film or TV. Iñárritu embraces this approach, allowing the actions of both cast and camera to inform the film’s outlook. It’s overly dramatic? So are most superhero films. It’s dripping with sarcasm? So is Robert Downey Jr. Birdman’s medium is crucial to its message.
Thompson’s opening meditations belie his traumas. His play and his private life are coming apart at the seams. His ex-junkie daughter/assistant Sam (Emma Stone) is barely staying on the wagon, while his relationship with actress Laura (Andrea Riseborough) seems to be faltering. Meanwhile, the lead actor has just been incapacitated and is threatening to sue, and leading lady Lesley (Naomi Watts) is doubting her abilities onstage. What drives Thompson on through all this? Ultimately, it’s desperation with a side dose of mental issues. He needs a comeback, but his delusions of telekinetic ability and conversations with ‘Birdman’ threaten to derail his efforts. Keaton brings enough vulnerability and layers to the role to ensure he’s not just stunt casting. He’s necessarily stiff onstage, but comes alive when dealing with the real pressure offstage. The Hollywood system is an unforgiving beast, so it’s great to see his recent return to bigger roles reach such a sarcastic and triumphant apex. Keaton bites the hand that neglected to feed him for a long time, and it tastes delicious. Also taking a bite is Edward Norton, the former Incredible Hulk, playing leading-man replacement Mike Shiner. He’s written as a walking ego, and Norton delivers a hilarious performance, mocking both actorly self-importance and his own intense persona.
Shiner’s preening and the anxieties of Keaton and a uniformly-engaging supporting cast are all housed within the elaborate theatre, a character in and of itself. DoP Emmanuel Lubezki follows his Academy Award win with camerawork of such nimbleness and smoothness that the continuous shot effect, deliberate as it may be, doesn’t jar. Yet Birdman does have the potential to annoy. It demands you go along with its theatrical sensibilities and heightened performances. Occasionally ‘Birdman’ tauntingly manifests himself to Thompson, who in turn imagines taking flight as an escape. Birdman threatens to take off and leave its audience behind in a self-aware fuzz, but the performances keep it grounded. Thompson is brought down to Earth gently on occasion by talking to ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan, with less-than-enough screentime). Hearing Thompson’s manager Jake’s (Zach Galifaniakis) pronunciation of ‘Scorsese’ or seeing Antonio Sanchez appear on screen performing his own sassy drum score could be grating, but the score and Galifaniakis are more than engaging enough to ensure they stay on the right side of self-aware. At the very least, Birdman is interesting; at its best, it’s dazzling.
The film constantly and consistently draws attention to itself, but what’s the harm? It’s refreshing to see a film not take itself too seriously, even one with as much satirical potential as this one. Many a true word said in jest, and all that. While superheroes get a pummelling from one of the original and best of them, Iñárritu and his script (co-written with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo) risks goodwill and takes aim at critics. As represented by Lindsay Duncan’s veteran New York Times theatre writer Tabitha, the critical eye is accused of being unfeeling and pessimistic (As Thompson asks Tabitha, “What has to happen in a person’s life for them to become a critic?”). Watching so much fluff can breed contempt, but that’s why we need “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”. That subtitle may seem like another layer of artifice to weed out anyone predestined to hate this thing, but it’s what Birdman is all about. On occasion, something like this comes around to surprise us. When superheroes didn’t dominate our billboards, we didn’t get teaser trailers for teaser trailers and Michael Keaton was Batman, we didn’t know any better; ignorance was bliss. If you go into Birdman knowing little about it, it might just astonish you. Birdman is anything but ignorant. The next umpteen years of umpteen caped crusades could be very long indeed, but Birdman probably has them sussed before they’ve even begun.