Actor Riggan Thomson is most famous for his movie role from over twenty years ago of the comic book superhero Birdman in the blockbuster movie of the same name and its two equally popular sequels. His association with the role took over his life, where Birdman is more renowned than “Riggan Thomson” the actor. Now past middle age, Riggan is trying to establish himself as a true artist by writing, directing, starring in and co-producing with his best friend Jake what is his Broadway debut, an adaptation of Raymond Carver‘s story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He is staking his name, what little artistic reputation that comes with that name and his life savings on the project, and as such will do anything needed to make the play a success. As he and Jake go through the process of the previews toward opening night, Riggan runs into several issues: needing to find a replacement for the integral supporting male role the night before the first preview; hiring the talented … Written by Huggo
25 December 2014
You’ll believe a man can fly. Or you’ll believe that believing you can fly and flying are sort of the same thing. Either way, Alejandro González Iñárritu achieves takeoff in a big way with his crazy, freaky-deaky, hellzapoppin’ showbiz comedy Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). I certainly levitated with enjoyment. What is this? The Wings of Desire, as directed by Mel Brooks? At certain moments, watching it felt like inhaling laughing gas mixed with helium. And the technically extraordinary “flight” sequence looked very much like dreams of flying I’ve had myself.
It’s shot in one single take, without cuts (but with a few seamless digital sutures) and depicts the escalating anxiety attack being suffered by a failing movie star called Riggan Thomson, played with fiercely tender self-pity by Michael Keaton. Poor Riggan has haughtily abandoned the dumb superhero role of Birdman that made him rich and famous, and is now trying for credibility by starring in his own self-financed Broadway stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. He has hired his lawyer buddy Jake (Zach Galifianakis) to produce, and his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) to be his personal assistant, in a pathetic attempt to make up for neglecting her in childhood while away shooting those hateful Birdman films – an abandonment that contributed to her drug issues.
Divorced Riggan is now in a semi-covert relationship with co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who wants a baby; however, she also has a Sapphic tendresse for the show’s leading lady, Lesley (Naomi Watts), who must act opposite her own boyfriend, Mike Shiner, a hyperactive, narcissistic method-acting diva hilariously played by Edward Norton. As opening night approaches, the pressure is causing Riggan to hallucinate, and he is visited by the granite-voiced figure of Birdman, the superhero monster he created, ordering him to forget the theatre and reclaim his chief superpower: making movie megabucks.
It is a film that has been wildly hailed by the critics, despite – I am sorry to say – depicting critics as fatuous, shallow, parasitic and prejudiced. At one stage, in an excitable impromptu casting discussion, Mike Shiner’s own popularity with the critics is discussed: “They want to spooge on him!” “Right on his face!” As for Iñárritu, he’s getting the facial-spooge-tsunami he deserves, showing a glorious capacity for comedy I hadn’t suspected from his earlier, more solemn movies like21 Grams, Babel or Biutiful. This does, however, finally display those movies’ tendency towards what I can only describe as plangent romantic seriousness.
Something in the jittery, crazy dialogue makes it sometimes hard to tell if the characters are talking as themselves, or performing the Carver dialogue. Riggan himself will roam the peeling, faintly nightmarish theatre corridors and burst out into the (genuine) crowded New York street – a bravura single-take staging in one unitary space that gives the movie the excitement of some experimental theatrical happening. And the unbroken take is weirdly reminiscent of the first-person point-of-view movies like Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void or indeed Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake. There is simply something disturbing in the unending, relentless single view. As the restless action unfolds, you’ll hear strange passages of music, orchestral swells or insistent nerve-jangling jazz drumming – music that may or may not be diegetic. Is Riggan using it as background music in the show? Can the characters hear it as well as us?
And all the time, poor Riggan is approaching a mental breakdown due to the imminent critical and commercial catastrophe; and he can’t quite admit to himself that he is addicted to celebrity, though he is unsure how to renegotiate his declining position as a famous person in the alien new world of reality shows and social media. Amusingly, he confesses to a horrendous status-anxiety episode while on a plane with George Clooney – like Clooney, Michael Keaton himself played Batman in that pre-Nolan era when superheroes were not quite as ubiquitous as they are now. Riggan doesn’t want to renounce his celebrity. He wants to upgrade it, improve it, make it classier. Deep in his heart, he prefers the acclaim of strangers to intimacy with his wife and daughter. And there is a brilliant, farcical moment when he is locked out of the theatre just before needing to go on, and the only way to the stage is through the public front-of-house entrance. The situation is every star’s worst nightmare: having to somehow prove your importance and validate your existence from scratch. Birdman is a delicious and delirious pleasure.
27 August 2014
On the opening day of the Venice film festival, the organisers like nothing better than to lock the guests inside a darkened room and suck the oxygen from their lungs. Last year’s event kicked off with Gravity, a weightless, airless thriller to die for. On this occasion we were treated to Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, a hysterical backstage melodrama that purports to hold its breath through the course of one continuous take. If Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film finally lacks Gravity’s populist punch, it is at least its equal in terms of technical prowess and claustrophobic panache. I sat through the whole thing with a mounting alarm.
Michael Keaton, best remembered for his role as Batman, plays Riggan Thomson, best remembered for his role as Birdman. Riggan is a vain, ageing Hollywood actor, his blockbuster days behind him, who is seeking redemption via a Broadway production of a Raymond Carver short story. But the boundaries are blurring. The walls are closing in, his personal life is in tatters. “The play is starting to feel like a deranged, deformed version of myself,” he wails at one stage.
Iñárritu’s film, we come to realise, is nothing less than an extended actor’s nightmare of disputatious colleagues, snooty critics and boisterous fans who still love him as Birdman. The camera hounds us from the dressing-room to the wings to the stage and then out into the din of Times Square, where Keaton parades in his pants during the tale’s comic highlight. En-route Riggan runs up against Edward Norton’s strutting co-star, an impotent diva who finds he can only perform when the lights are on and the house is full.
He squabbles with his acerbic daughter (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab, and receives visits from his ex-wife and current girlfriend, who may just be figments. The acting is clamorous verging on the indulgent. But the script cuts like a knife even when the editor does not, gleefully flaming everyone from Meg Ryan to Justin Bieber to Robert Downey Jr, the star of the Iron Man films. “That clown doesn’t have half your talent,” growls the voice of Riggan’s demon. “And he’s making a fortune in that tin-man get-up.”
Do we care about Riggan? I’m not sure that we do; I’m not convinced that we’re meant to. His torments are framed as sour satire, hotwired by gaudy flights of fancy. At times Birdman reminded me of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, a more melancholy riff on a similar theme; at others of Alexander Mackendrick’s sublime The Sweet Smell of Success, with its restless, prowling tour of nocturnal midtown Manhattan. There’s no doubt it makes for a jubilant ride, a galvanic first blast. But it remains a film which feels deeply thought rather than deeply felt; a brilliant technical exercise as opposed to a flesh-and-blood story.
Is it a redundancy to complain that Birdman lacks soul? Maybe so. It’s a depthless, self-absorbed film about a shallow, self-absorbed man; jittery and relentless from the first to last gasp. We come scurrying up narrow corridors and up darkened stairwells, through the exploded stage-set of Riggan Thomson’s own head. The delegates applauded; they clearly relished the tour. But they broke for the exit with something approaching relief.