BIRDMAN (OR THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE (2014, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, 119 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Birdman would appear to be the most acclaimed film of the year and it is easy to be swept up as its backstage drama takes flight. This sort of behind-the-curtains look at the world of theater has a long history in the world of small scale art films but director Alejando González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams) juices up the precedings with a modern blockbuster dynamism and creates a film that is unlike much else we’ve seen in modern cinema. In a seamless single shot, all the action swoops, swerves and swings around Riggan (the all-but-forgotten Michael Keaton), an actor hoping to bounce back from a career slump by directing and starring in a new Broadway play based on author Raymond Carver’s moody midlife work. It is just days before the play’s debut and Riggan paces urgently throughout the theater while opening night looks doomed to collapse into chaos. The film flows freely in and out of Riggan’s perceptions, with the realities of staging a show occasionally interrupted by his cinematic alter-ego Birdman, the costumed superhero that once made him a movie star.
There is a lot to dazzle the eyeball in Birdman and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki should be given credit front and center. When you consider this 50-year-old Mexico City native has shot such visual extravaganzas as Like Water For Chocolate, Children of Men, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Gravity you have to believe a great deal of Birdman‘s feverish, transcendent quality comes from this modern cinema master. But at the center of Lubezki’s breathtaking work is Michael Keaton, a major rediscovery 22 years after his box-office heights as Batman and probably 15 since he has been widely seen in a substantial role. With the actor and the roles being so closely matched here there is an almost documentary sense that we are witnessing Keaton in a late career-defining moment as he steers his jerry-rigged production down the runway. Like Marcello Mastroianni in 8 ½ there is a giddy and poignant parade passing by Riggan and it is his weary reaction to it all that supplies much of the film’s soul. Often scored by a single jazz drummer’s skittering rhythms, Keaton is all darting eyes and rat-tat dialogue, reminding us it his quick facility with comedy, drama and everything in between.
But the film is not exclusively from Riggan’s perspective, a number of actors make impressions as they race through the whirlwind, notably Ed Norton as Mike, the Broadway star with weight to throw around and Emma Stone as Sam, Riggan’s daughter, who is trying to reestablish their relationship between rehearsals. Both are seen as psychic threats to Riggan. Mike with his status as a bad boy Broadway success is willing to do anything to deliver his performance, even if it means challenging Riggan at every turn. Sam is a threat because she is a continual reminder of Riggan’s personal failures. Riggan would like both Sam and Mike’s respect but can he please them and still perform the task at hand? Everyone Riggan is working with is crucial to his play’s success yet everyone seems capable of bringing the production to its knees as opening night looms.
As with 2013’s Gravity, Iñárritu uses the latest technological advances to give his story an irresistible sense of momentum, a fitting style for a story set in the one-take world of theater. Yet Birdman is not theater, due to subtle computer trickery Iñárritu can direct every event to hit its mark at his exact cue. Everything in the film is so artfully orchestrated that by the end of the film the viewer has danced through the film but we never get to find our bearings and actually live in it. Birdman is defined by its frenzied pace and with that pace something reflective is inescapably lost. As the corniest of all endings waits for our battle-scarred Riggan the film finally lands on a weak leg, its final lessons too shallow for the dark realities that Riggan’s journey and Keaton’s performance have revealed heretofore. Birdman’s visceral thrills are real, but it hurts that its final insights veer so sharply toward the cheerfully facile.