Release Date: November 14th, 2014 (US); January 1st, 2015 (UK)
Genre: Comedy; Drama
Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton
What, exactly, has happened to our actors? Michael Keaton obsesses over this moral quandary for the entirety of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, challenging each viewer’s own perception in the process. The best films are often those grounded in a sense of intellect, those which hold their audience in high enough regard to pose questions carrying significant weight. Here, it is performance art or, more specifically, the film industry that is placed under a 21st-century-swathed microscope. As the camera stalks an internally raving Keaton, we’re asked to consider the state of the movie business in 2015. Where did it all go wrong? Who is to blame? Don’t worry about causing offence. Iñárritu sure doesn’t.
Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an ageing actor in pursuit of artistic redemption, a quest that currently finds him at the helm of a Broadway play. Thomson formerly played Birdman, a Batman-esque superhero whose feathered escapades brought the actor more cash than critical admiration. Though the film is set in a theatre, it becomes obvious that Iñárritu’s focus is the changing landscape of cinema. His script is smart, strategically splicing moments of rich humour in amongst an overarching spiel about the industry that’ll tickle those with a keen interest — like us movie dabblers.
Accordingly, Birdman ventures down two separate reels. When it is not exploring the limitations set by corporate culture, the film considers the power relations contained within visual art as it pits artist against critic; though both themes are intrinsically linked. The most prominent issue — uncultured suits designing and enforcing limits — is what bothers Riggan most, for the actor cannot escape his old Birdman character. At various points, Emmanuel Lubezki’s stunning cinematography shows off a Birdman film poster peering over Riggan’s shoulder, a constant reminder of past success. This spectre even manifests audibly as a Christian Bale-toned voice in Riggan’s head, and later physically too, signalled by a deliciously pulpy beat.
For the wannabe theatre star, superheroes are too easy and the superhero genre is a sell-out, both literally and figuratively. Michael Fassbender in X-Men? Jeremy Renner in another Avengers flick? Riggan’s dismay is palpable. As real world Hollywood prepares for a five-year comic book brawl at the cinema, the superhero debate has never been more relevant and is therefore a totally engaging hook. Riggan’s fear that he will never amass to anything more than a spandex-laden pigeon could be the same fear echoing through the minds of those actors currently trapped in the seemingly endless Marvel and DC cinematic universes.
As an audience swept up in the numerous products spawned by these behemoth film companies, the challenge for us becomes one of understanding Riggan’s watery mindset. Creating a critically laudable play is imperative in order for the actor to move on. “It’s important to me… it’s my career,” he says. His daughter, played brilliantly by Emma Stone, sets him straight: “It’s not important, okay?! You’re not important! Get used to it.” As a recovering drug addict Sam is not so hot herself, which makes her the most relatable person on screen. Her words cut deep too, suggesting a very real sense of melancholy for those plagued by the monopolised movie landscape.
That is probably why Riggan hires Mike (Edward Norton) as a last minute cast replacement, despite some reservations. Norton is terrific as the button-pusher who we sort of hate due to his deviousness, yet whose talent is admirable. In one of many excellent quips — the film is dialogue heavy, but Iñárritu and his co-writers never seem to lose textual steam — Mike sums up the dilemma stabbing away at Riggan’s mental stability: “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” Keaton’s purveyance of instability is often electrifying and, even if Riggan never reclaims his former limelight, Keaton already has. At various points, both he and Norton must act as actors playing theatrical thespians on stage, which sounds incredibly difficult yet both excel.
Not satisfied with exposing those directly involved, Birdman soon sinks its claws into industry critics. We periodically encounter the power struggle between filmmaker and reviewer, and it becomes clear that as well as sell-out actors, sell-out journalists are in demand too — the Perez Hilton types, asking about the value of facial surgery and pig semen rather than proper actory stuff. The film’s best scene sees one such power-play in action: Riggan and a highly regarded theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) spit truthful obscenities across the bar, before coming to the conclusion that they both need each other to thrive. It resembles a politically charged Game of Thrones interaction set in King’s Landing, and is as good as one too.
Having written and directed a film that essentially bashes the modern film industry (admittedly, with rationale), Iñárritu’s masterstroke is his use of comedy to diffuse, and somewhat dilute, his overtly critical narrative. In lesser hands, both aforementioned themes could pave way for dourness, for an overbearing attitude fuelled by sanctimony, but the director uses comedy to get around this problem and instead makes it part of the in-joke. Birdman may well be a true reflection of the industry today, but it is still damn funny. Perhaps we are laughing out of disbelief (that’s THREE-ZERO superhero movies on the way), but I’d like to think it is because Birdman is witty, true, bearing meaty roles, and successful. And not a superhero film.
It is worth again mentioning the exceptional work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The entire film presents itself as a one-take product and, rather than becoming gimmicky, Lubezki ensures that the method energises the piece without overruling it. Shots are framed with precision and give us the chance to connect thematic dots, such as the journey of the aforementioned Birdman poster — its position on the wall coincides with Riggan’s spiralling thoughts. There is zip and tenacity, and a genuine sense of theatre/film set chaos.
What has happened to our actors, then? Apparently they used to play a superheroes, but then fell out of favour. Now one is back and, alongside his prodding director, Michael Keaton is on top form again. I love superhero films, but this is bloody good too — and I think that is the point.
Images copyright (©): Fox Searchlight Pictures