Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
2014, R, 119 min. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Zach Galifianakis, Lindsay Duncan.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Oct. 24, 2014
Has Alejandro González Iñárritu finally retired the hair shirt? If so, it’s a good look for him. Where his previous films – Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, and Biutiful – were punishing, Birdman is more like a high-spirited pummeling, and the closest thing to a comedy he’s made so far.
Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomas, who once ruled Hollywood as the star of a superhero franchise – he was the titular Birdman – but whose career crumbled when he balked at making a third sequel. (Sound familiar? The film doesn’t overdo the in-joke, but certainly Keaton’s Batman past informs the part.) The film opens with Riggan meditating in his dressing room, just days before he debuts his pet project, a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Actually, scratch meditating – he’s levitating – and that running voice in his head, spelling out all of Riggan’s doubt and self-loathing, is Birdman himself, who frankly thinks this Broadway business is beneath a guy who used to top-bill blockbusters. Riggan is cracking from the stress. The play is in shambles, Riggan’s Broadway big-shot co-star (Edward Norton, a majestic ass) is stealing his limelight, his broken daughter (Emma Stone) is just barely holding on to her new sobriety, and Riggan may or may not be going nuts.
Iñárritu is a magician of transference; he strong-arms the audience into sharing Riggan’s racing heart rate and roiling gut-feel. There’s no shielding yourself from Antonio Sanchez’s percussive score, with its shattered beats and crescendoing chaos a contagion of Riggan’s mental state. And Iñárritu’s decision to shoot the entire film in minutes-long unbroken shots is no mere showboating (which isn’t to say cinematographer Emmanuel Luzbeki shouldn’t start drafting his acceptance speech right now). By concealing the seams between shots, the movie moves as one long fever dream, and the pressure on the actors to not ruin a take is palpable.
Relentlessly tempoed between nervous-leg agitation and hair-pulling hysteria, Birdman moves quickly among its many points of interest: backstage drama; smirking send-up of celebrity journalism and serious arts criticism both; the enduring coastal war between theatre and film actors; the legacy of addiction; and a very particular story of one star who’s fallen to earth. (When an exhausted Riggan, back in his dressing room, removes his wig to reveal soft, gray tufts of hair spiking up like a baby bird’s, the effect is tender and haunting.) None of these lines of inquiry neatly resolve – indeed, Iñárritu and his co-writers Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo are perversely/pleasurably cryptic on certain points – but the film is so soaring, sometimes literally, I hardly missed the feeling of hard ground underfoot.