In the same theatrical year that gave us gems like Fury and instant-classics like Boyhood, Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) will go down as not only a classic, but a hedonistic spectacle for cinephiles for years to come.
Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu‘s best film to date is brazenly ambitious, from risky camera moves, ostensibly unbridled acting scenes, self-referential themes and emotionally piquing, yet simultaneously disturbing self-discovery of what it means to be a spectator. It’s gutsy material that Iñárritu has chosen to work with. Based on a script that he co-wrote with Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo, and partly based on a short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” written by American writer Raymond Carver which serves as the film’s narrative cynosure, Iñárritu managed to find the right actors to bring his geographically-minimal yet ostentatious script to life. Iñárritu’s bold, long tracking shots allow the momentum of each actor’s stellar performance to flow through the film like emotional feng shui and build to a meta climax that doesn’t disappoint.
Birdman follows the career and personal life of Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton), an actor in his post-prime years, famous for once playing the titular Birdman character in a series of superhero films. Now, years later, Riggan is ready for his comeback. He prepares for his play, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” in which he stars and directs. However, when one of his main actors is injured on set, he hastily hires the method-extremist Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) to fill the part. Meanwhile, Riggan deals with personal issues outside the stage that complicate his production from his ex-wife Sylvia (Meg Ryan), his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough), his co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts), his best friend Jake (Zack Galifianakis) and a callous Broadway critic named Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) who can’t wait to textually eviscerate Riggan and his play in her review.
From start to finish, Birdman is a collective tour de force performance. It’s not only emotionally laden but cerebrally active. On one front, Iñárritu puts his fine cast through arduous acting obstacles. His long tracking shots are breathtaking to watch; From backstage to the streets and all the in-betweens, Iñárritu’s finesse with a kinetic camera makes his job look effortless. Part of that reason is that he picked the right bunch of actors. In one take, we see Stone give an unflinching, venomous monologue directed at Keaton’s character and in the next moment see her do a thespian 180 when her visage evokes the subtle signs of penitence. Keaton’s performance is a marvel to watch. Like his character in the film, Keaton hasn’t had a hit or been at the forefront of many studios’ minds for the last few decades, so it’s nice to see the actor shine once again. His most exciting scenes consist of conversations – arguments, at times – with his feathery alter-ego. Even Galifianakis’ botched lines add to the effervescent spontaneity of each long scene, giving it a layer of realness that nicely counteracts the level of surreal playfully lingering in the subtextual corner of each scene.
On the other front, the film is incredibly topical without being too on the nose. In a tech-savvy society, fame can be acquired instantly, but often for the wrong reasons and with ill consequences. Iñárritu seems to have it out for the critics, depicting them as blood-thirsty hackneyed artists who find pleasure in their power to squash dreams. Yet, he’s also subtly suggesting the dangers of a universal access to spectatorship and the ubiquity of one’s reaction. Observing the myriad of ways in which some of the characters communicate with one another, the director is perhaps pointing out the pusillanimous way in which his protagonist is seeking out affection. As one character states to Riggan, affection does not translate to love. What better way to ironically express the missing intimacy in performance than to stage his film around a play, where space and time is less manipulated, everything is live and front-row patrons have the pleasure of being showered in spit.
In what is a showcase to the power of passionate determination, the fallacy of vanity, the underestimation of technology and the overestimation of critical appraisal, Birdman is one of the most original, finely conceived films of the last decade. The only resentment for Iñárritu will be how he’ll manage to top this incredible feat.
Read Editor Clayton Davis’ review of “Birdman” from the New York Film Festival.