Birdman opens with C-list celebrity Riggan (Michael Keaton), a superhero has-been trying to reclaim glory as a serious Broadway actor, meditating and levitating before rehearsal of his play. Wait – levitating? Yes. It seems that Riggan has picked up some super powers along the way.
But this movie is so subtly engrossing, its rhythm unrelenting, that I actually forgot this little nugget of information until the next bit of surrealism came our way, presented just as slyly as the first. Some remnant of his Birdman alterego remains, and narrates Riggan’s present tense in a voice reminiscent of Christian Bale’s Batman, driving home the satirical meta-performance at work here. Director Iñárritu gets right up in his grill, nursing long but very intimate shots that show unflinchingly every wrinkle, every worry line ever earned by these actors.
Set almost entirely behind the scenes at St James theatre and shot in long, loooooooong takes that keep the film moving briskly, there’s a beauty and a mystique that really locked me in. Finally Iñárritu has found his element. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki floats the camera down corridors and ascends smoothly through the scaffolding and the balconies like an unobserved peeping tom. We take our cues from this camera work. We race to find new action, we catch our breath when travelling down darkened hallways. In this way, the movie feels serene yet is in constant motion. The music helps us keep pace and is sometimes so coolly frenzied that musicians forget they aren’t supposed to be seen!
Riggan, meanwhile, is crippled by all the nay-sayers in his life: the junkie daughter (Emma Stone), the anxious lawyer (Zach Galifianakis), the guilt-tripping ex-wife (Amy Ryan) – but none more so than that voice in his head that slowly cannibalizes him by the end of the film. When one of his actors is put out of commission, he’s forced to bring on board stage actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) who immediately threatens to outshine him. With his own superhero baggage (Hulk, anyone?), Norton threatens to casually steal the spotlight from Keaton as well with a brilliant send-up to Method acting, and a nod toward his own reputation for being difficult on set, but Keaton reminds us why he left the Batman franchise in the first place – dude is a first rate actor when he plays crazy.
The movie is ambitiously self-aware and asks smart-aleck questions like, why bother making a $20 million dollar movie when you can go viral for free? This may not be ground-breaking material but as long as Keaton is in on the joke, the monster egos and insecurities, the fraud and the acerbic wit, it’s all part of a complex self-examination that’s fascinating to witness.
Matt and I saw this movie nearly a week ago and it’s taken me this long to even begin unpacking my feelings about it, and this after an all-you-can-eat-sushi session in which we debriefed and compared notes. As Matt will tell you, the movie is also Iñárritu’s excuse to poke back at the critics who have called him out on his self-important, self-conscious work in the past (Babel, Biuitiful) even though this movie actually seems to acknowledge that these criticisms may have been valid.
I really enjoyed this movie. It’s a pleasure to watch, a puzzle to figure out, and a commentary just begging for feedback. Please, give us yours. Assume spoilers in the comments.