Staging a Drama, Working Out His Own
If you’re astute enough, you will see it. A small index card is nestled into the corner of a dressing room mirror. “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing,” it reads. The phrase is much easier to believe for somebody who hasn’t been in show business, let alone a target on Internet message boards. But because Birdman–an incredibly brilliant, intoxicating meta-commentary from director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu– is a movie about a play with movie stars, the quote serves as its guiding ethos.
The dressing room in question belongs to Riggan Thomson, a washed up Hollywood actor hoping for revitalization on Broadway, played with a boiling intensity by Michael Keaton. He’s first seen hovering in the lotus position, meditating in mid-air, challenging you to believe his fantastical reality. It’s one way he channels the former fame he acquired playing a cinematic superhero named Birdman, a living, breathing, sometimes squawking entity still buried deep inside his conscience, ruffling his feathers and beckoning him, in a deeper, brusque voice, to take flight again. Because you’re aware of Keaton’s past –working with Tim Burton in two Batman movies– this feverish, snappy thrill ride is like staring into a hall of mirrors.
The self-awareness works and eventually it infects the entire cast. Riggan has chosen to adapt, direct and act in Raymond Carver’s play “What do we talk about when we talk about love” to start his comeback, a small theatrical story debuting in the St. James theater next to Times Square. It’s an odd choice considering Inarritu’s often maximalist, sweeping and splintered epics grounded in the darkly lit, spiritual realms of violence and addiction. It’s an abrupt change, especially from his last feature Biutiful, which navigated the bowels of Barcelona and the ghosts that haunt them. Inarritu, like his protagonist Riggan, decides to spread his wings for something more comedic, venturing into newer territory and redefinition.
Riggan is still wary of his past, and Birdman’s voice smothers his drive and dedicated attempt to earn back his artistic merit and self-respect. This lucrative idealism—to put the suit back on– is a mirage for the middle-aged actor, but that doesn’t stop Riggan from snapping his telekinetic fingers, mentally cracking a poster against a wall, trashing his room in an instant. These scenes blur physics, just as the entire movie does. That’s largely because of Iñárritu’s vision working with cinematographer Emmanuelle Lubezki, responsible for the imagery in The Tree of Life and the floating wonder in Gravity. In Birdman, his camera weaves through the labyrinthine theater in one mesmerizing, fluid take. It hovers unbound to any handheld restraints, circling actors like prey, dodging around narrow corridors, effortlessly shifting perspectives in between dialogue. It becomes its own exuberant character, sneaking up to conversations, flying downstairs and in effect time-travelling. Everything, all taking place around the theater, is choreographed to perfection. It’s a lip-dub with no singing.
“Time is both history and the timeless; space is often challenged; identity is broken down.” Such are characteristics of Magical-realism, according to Wendy Faris, professor of literature at the University of Texas, and they’re deftly employed by Iñárritu, a Mexican director seemingly enchanted by this often Latin American literary concept. It must work to grab your attention though. This movie, fueled with improvisational jazz drumming, is constantly moving, keeping pace with Riggan as he downs liquor, sprints to the stage, rehearses his lines, and has histrionic chats with an actress (Andrea Riseborough) in the wings, kissing, then insulting, her before he’s off again, up, up, and away…
It’s tough work for Jake (Zach Galfianakis), Riggan’s publicist, flanking his sporadic movements and balancing his personal crises, only compounded with the show’s sputtering momentum. Edward Norton swoops in as Mike Shiner, an eleventh hour replacement and method actor to create some buzz. He’s a celebrity in the theater world, showboating his reputation. He’s also an arrogant prick, demanding authenticity. He disrupts a preview mid-scene complaining that his character isn’t drinking real alcohol. Later, he suggests Riggan use a real gun, not the prop he points to his head to close the show. In the incessant rehearsing, the camera eventually meanders its way to meet Sam (a snarly Emma Stone), Riggan’s daughter recovering from drug-use and fatherly neglect.
Norton takes over the movie’s first half, spitting out lines and suggesting new ones, critical of everything and everyone. He meets Sam on the St. James rooftop and starts a flirtatious chat with her. It’s a dynamite scene. The camera zooms in and out of their faces parallel to the intensity of their discussion, which skips from repellant to romantic. The meta-moment is that this is Gwen Stacy speaking to Bruce Banner, Spiderman’s girlfriend commiserating with the Incredible Hulk. Iñárritu is intentional with his casting in this way. Before Shiner comes aboard, Jake runs through a laundry list of actors unavailable because of superhero franchise commitments. It’s not so much critical of contemporary Hollywood as it is a reflection of its current climate.
The two share an equal frustration with Riggan, as an artist and as a father. “Don’t confuse love for admiration,” says Mike, humbling Riggan’s entrepreneurial ego. “You’re not important! You don’t even have a Facebook page!” shouts Sam, going further and humiliating him. Riggan’s ex-wife (Amy Ryan) shows up chastising his previous attempts at love. In a nearby bar it boils over, when Riggan encounters the top theater critic named Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), who threatens to destroy his play before even seeing it. Like Jon Favreau in this year’s Chef, Keaton gets his cathartic attempt to lambast this nearly fictional writer, the monster artists envision when they see a byline and a scathing review to follow. He’s at once comically insulting and fighting for his life.
In some ways you feel Iñárritu, who wrote this with Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armadno Bo, is also in on this scene. His mostly depleting movies are polarizing, both in subject matter and in narrative form. I’ve enjoyed them all, even in their brutal depictions and stylized forms. His first feature, Amores Perros, hosting a trilogy of conflating storylines, picked at Mexico City’s structured food chain. 21 Grams took a drug-infused narrative and shattered it to pieces while Babel soul-searched for humanity’s inherent, often unseen connections to itself. Birdman (Or the Ignorance of Virtue), its full title, is instead a personal journey, battling the demons that so often chirp in your ear. He’s made a movie telling them to shut up.
At one point, they wind Riggan up to insanity. He stands on a rooftop ledge after some impressive CGI explosions have just scorched Manhattan. He’s contemplating jumping. Or is he contemplating flying? Like the notecard in the mirror, Iñárritu supplies us with another hidden treat, a billboard of last year’s Superman movie near the bottom of the screen. Maybe it’s inspirational. He knows he is Icarus, but soaring towards the sun just looks too good to pass up from atop his perch.
Keaton handles all of this with such delusional abandon. During a preview he steps out for a smoke and gets his robe caught on the stage door. Soon he has become a viral video, strutting in his underwear back into the theater entrance to complete the final scene. Sam rejoices because he’s finally become relevant online. It’s brave work. After a year that started playing a bureaucrat in Robocop and a lunatic behind a web cam in Need For Speed, this is the first time his crazy seems rational.
Through all of this chaos and paranoia run rampant, including Naomi Watts as an actress obsessed with her aging image, the show must go on. Indeed it does, but you won’t want to see the curtains drawn. When Sam and Mike convene on the roof in between the manic atmosphere, Sam forces a game of “Truth or Dare,” which seems queasy considering their location. She quickly gets angry Mike never chooses a dare. “The truth is always interesting,” he says. As Birdman makes evident, striving for it– on stage, on screen, or in the air– is too.