Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Written by: Alejandro González Iñárritu and Nicolás Giacobone and Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo.
Starring: Michael Keaton (Riggan), Edward Norton (Mike), Emma Stone (Sam), Zach Galifianakis (Jake), Naomi Watts (Lesley), Andrea Riseborough (Laura), Amy Ryan (Sylvia), Lindsay Duncan (Tabitha), Jeremy Shamos (Ralph), Merritt Wever (Annie).
There has been a law of diminishing returns with the first four movies by Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. As the films moved from Amores Perros (2000) to 21 Grams (2003) to Babel (2006) to Biutiful (2010), so did Inarritu’s ambitions – and the sense that he felt he was making VERY IMPORTANT art that had to be taken very, very seriously. The movies became an increasing parade of misery, that were mainly redeemed by the fact that Inarritu is a talented visual filmmaker, and is capable of getting some great performances from his actors (while no one has won an Oscar yet for his films, there have been five nominations between them). His latest film, Birdman, is his first comedy – and if that’s not a welcome enough change, the fact that it is a comedy about a number of artists who take themselves too seriously shows that Inarritu may in fact have a sense of humor about himself – and how he is perceived. Either that or Birdman is little more than a bitter rant by an artist who despite a lot of success, is still angry that some don’t take him and his work as seriously as he takes it. But I’ll give Inarritu the benefit of the doubt on that one.
The film stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomsen, who 20 years ago was a huge movie star in a series of comic films – entitled Birdman. But he walked away from that stardom, and in the interim doesn’t seem to have done very much (or at least anything the movie lets us know). He is now about to make his Broadway debut – having adapted Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love for the stage, as well as directing the play, and playing the lead character. His life is in chaos – his latest girlfriend, and co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough) thinks she’s pregnant. His recovering drug addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is working as his assistant. One of the key actors in his play is horrible, but when he gets hit in the head by a falling light, he has a chance to recast the roll – only to discover that all the actors he wants to cast are making superhero movies. He finally settles on Mike (Edward Norton), a committed method actor, who is a mess offstage, but brilliant on it. This is even more complicated since he is dating co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts), and hitting on Sam. The previews are about to start the next day, and Riggan, along with his partner/lawyer/producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) are trying desperately to hold everything together – even as he mentally falls apart. He hears the voice of Birdman (also Keaton, but made to sound like Christian Bale in the Nolan Batman movies) in his head telling him he’s worthless – and he’s starting to think he may well be right.
Birdman works best when it’s at its broadest – which thankfully is most of the time. The movie doesn’t really have any particularly original to say – it’s insights into the shallowness of fame and superhero obsessed culture, where “twitter is a real thing” isn’t really all that profound, and doesn’t really go very deep (then again perhaps the shallowness of that culture doesn’t deserve very deep treatment). Neither is the movies insight into how hard being an artist can be. Everyone in the movie is a caricature – from Keaton’s has been star trying to be relevant to Norton’s method actor insanity to Riseborough and Watts as insecure, aging actress (seriously, we didn’t need two of them – and Watts in particular shows she could have done so much more than the movie gives her to do), to Stone’s entitled daughter, blaming her daddy for all her issues, to Amy Ryan, as the perfect ex-wife who got away, to Lindsay Duncan as a New York Times critic who wields an unrealistic amount of power, and relishes it to insane degrees – no one is above Inarittu’s scorn, although some more lovingly than others.
To a certain extent, Birdman feels like nothing more than Inaritu and his collaborators showing off for two hours – which may sound insufferable, except for the fact that they are so good at it. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki outdoes the long takes he did in such movies as Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men (2006) or Gravity (2013). Although the movie takes place over the span of a few days, the entire film is made up of a series of very long tracking shots, nearly seamlessly cut together to make it all look like one continuous shot. It is all ridiculously complex, and requires perfect timing from all involved – and they make it look effortlessly. The performances in the film are all wonderful. Keaton has to bounce from one extreme emotion to the next, often in the same scene and he makes it all seem to make sense. It’s tempting to say he’s playing a version of himself, since like Riggan, he was one of the first superhero movie stars, who turned down a sequel, and has never recaptured that star again. But that’s not really true – as Keaton has always seemed like the type of actor who doesn’t really give a shit about stardom, and has simply done whatever the hell he wants. This may well be the best work of his career. Even better is Norton, as Mike, the egotistical method actor – also brilliantly playing off his own image as an egomaniac who is impossible to work with, but delivers greatness onscreen. He shares some real chemistry with Stone in their scenes together – who is also doing career best work as the damaged daughter. The rest of the cast is in fine form – but these three are great.
Birdman isn’t quite the masterpiece that some have made it out to be – at least not to me. It’s fun from beginning to end, with great cinematography, direction and performances. But I do wish it had gone a little bit deeper – and pushed a little bit further. Yes, being an artist is hard, and the culture around it is rather shallow. Inaritu is perhaps a little too enamored with Riggan – and doesn’t go far enough in examining him. Perhaps being an artist is so hard for Riggan because he just isn’t very good at it. Is it just me, or does the play he’s working on look horrible?