by Matt Levine
Ever since his debut Amores perros (2000) seemed to herald the arrival of the next Scorsese, the career of Alejandro González Iñárritu has infuriated some and invigorated others. Indeed, the rift between Iñárritu’s fans and detractors is somewhat indicative of differing cinematic outlooks: those who like their movies with Big Themes and grandiose dramatic moments, and those who like their movies a little spontaneous, unpredictable, about more than character and theme. The visceral intensity of Amores perros makes it easy to forget that its characters are empty archetypes and its story overindulgent in tragic melodrama. Same with his subsequent films 21 Grams (2003), Babel (2006), and Biutiful (2010), all of which have the same central problem (especially horrendous in 21 Grams): they’re so worried about appearing serious and meaningful that they lose grasp of anything human or alive. They’re weighty dramas about the human condition that seem to know very little about it.
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Producers: Alejandro González Iñárritu, John Lesher, Arnon Milchan, James W. Skotchdopole
Writers: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki
Editors: Douglas Crise, Stephen Mirrione
Music: Antonio Sanchez
Cast: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Jeremy Shamos, Andrea Riseborough, Damian Young, Natalie Gold, Edward Norton, Merritt Wever, Clark Middleton, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan
Premiere: August 27, 2014 – Venice Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 17, 2014
US Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Though I don’t hate Iñárritu as much as the Dissolve’s Scott Tobias, it would have taken a drastic change of pace to make me remotely interested in his next film. Thankfully, Birdman, Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is drastic in practically every way, and finds Iñárritu attempting, for the first time, a comedy. Of course it’s a dark comedy, and wallows in the same volume of angst and misery as any of his other movies, but the jokes about larger-than-life artists and gullible audiences come fast and furious. To be sure, Iñárritu’s comedic U-turn injects some much-needed levity into his style, but many of his more serious flaws remain, preventing Birdman from being as powerful as it could have been (and it could have been overwhelming).
It helps that Iñárritu has a committed cast at his disposal—most prominently Michael Keaton, whose sporadic supporting roles as of late remind us why he should be in more movies. Birdman takes full advantage of his penchant for comedy and uniquely anxious acting style, not to mention his pop-culture cache as a former mega-star. Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, who starred in the 1990s as America’s favorite cinematic superhero, Birdman. As often happens to once-lofty celebrities, though (at least in Iñárritu’s mournful world), Riggan's family slips through his fingers as his fame dissipates, leaving him lonely and insecure. After years of semi-obscurity, Riggan decides to adapt Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” for Broadway in a bid for critical acclaim and a return to the cultural spotlight.
It's the kind of stunt casting that blurs the line between our media-saturated reality and the world of the film. Of course Riggan is meant to exploit the audience’s pre-existing perception of Michael Keaton (who’s just as synonymous with Batman as Christian Bale for viewers, like myself, who grew up adoring the Tim Burton movies), but there’s also the casting of Edward Norton as a hot-tempered capital-A Actor who would never lower himself to the depths of superhero movies (a line spoken with a wink to those who’ve seen The Hulk). Birdman makes it clear (a little too blatantly) that it exists in a world where bombastic superhero blockbusters are the pinnacle of popularity; this allows for some amusing satirical jabs at short-attention-span modern audiences, but it can also come off as condescending, with the movie positing itself as a meaningful human story with more lasting vitality than its Hollywood brethren (not unlike Riggan with his highfalutin Broadway debut).
Riggan is surrounded by characters who act as constant reminders of his perceived unworthiness. His daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), recently released from rehab, vacantly serves as Riggan’s assistant, though they hardly communicate; his lover Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who also stars in one of the play’s lead roles, tells Riggan she’s pregnant with his baby, then reveals it was a lie to gauge his commitment. Riggan’s play is produced by his longtime friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis), whose massive financial contribution only intensifies Riggan’s self-imposed pressure. When another male lead is struck in the head by a stage light (a mishap that Riggan claims was his doing), he’s forced to bring in Mike Shiner (Norton), who so craves authenticity that he has an onstage fit when he discovers that Riggan switched his on-set gin with water. Mike is married to Lesley (Naomi Watts), an actress receiving her Broadway debut in Riggan’s play, but he almost inadvertently begins an affair with Riggan's daughter, a likeminded misanthrope.
What separates this weepy storyline from one of Iñárritu’s dramas? Not much—not even the heavy-handed subplots that evoke such character relationships. Mike and Sam repeatedly meet on a balcony where Sam smokes on the ledge, overlooking the Manhattan crowds with a mixture of wonder and suicidal impulse. They play Truth or Dare as a way to get to know each other—a setup which is only slightly less awful than it sounds, thanks to Emma Stone and Edward Norton. A New York Times drama critic is exactly as snooty and heartless as you’d expect, and Riggan’s drunken bender after she vows to destroy his play is very hard to take seriously. The movie seems constantly in the process of checking off boxes on its Parade of Tragedy, sometimes in such a hurry to get to the drama that it simply brushes aside realistic human behavior.
But Iñárritu’s lighter touch (at least in relation to his other movies) brings some life to the dreariness. He makes the most of Riggan’s superhero delusions, concocting special effects- strewn fantasy sequences complete with raining meteors and immense explosions. Whereas the gap between Riggan’s impotence and delusions of power would be conveyed through histrionic dialogue in most of Iñárritu’s films, here they’re visualized by Riggan’s belief that he can telepathically move objects (and also through histrionic dialogue). Stylistically, the director steps outside of his comfort zone: the entire film appears to be a single unbroken take (though editing and computer effects actually link numerous shots), and a lively, minimalist drum score by Antonio Sanchez pulses beneath the action. True, the music is a little too reminiscent of Jon Brion’s score in Punch-Drunk Love, and the single-shot technique necessitates a woozy camera that saps some moments of their dramatic power, but Birdman does create a vibrant and unique world that’s captivating to observe (masterful cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's evocation of nighttime New York is worth the price of admission alone).
It would be a lie to say that the movie’s themes are totally unique; what Birdman has to say about the illusory power of celebrities is familiar from The King of Comedy (1982), and the idea that our identities are now formed through the media we create and the social networks we use is hardly earth-shattering, though it does have some amusing iterations here. Surprisingly, one of the film’s more interesting ideas regards the distinction between the experience of film and live theatre, while touching on the tumultuous state of print journalism—reaffirming the movie’s assertion that the media dominates our everyday lives in a refreshingly matter-of-fact way.
At its core, Birdman is a backstage drama, though there is no separation between the unpredictable mess of reality and the grandiose dramas of the stage—it all seems a grand performance, even the supposedly intimate, personal moments. This shouldn’t be blamed on the actors, who are highly entertaining to watch; it's simply that the movie operates on only one headstrong level where quiet moments don't really exist. But while some Iñárritu movies are simply strident, Birdman at its best is wild and viscerally astounding (something the director hasn’t achieved since Amores perros). Unfortunately its emotional fireworks are never as affecting as the movie expects them to be; the aesthetic may be lively but it also outshines the characters’ relationships, which aren’t given enough uniqueness to strike us as real human dramas.
But if Birdman isn’t the masterpiece it sometimes presents itself as, it’s an eccentric, exciting film, always a thrill to watch if rarely rewarding to contemplate. Iñárritu hasn’t yet ridded himself of bad habits—he tends to overstate the obvious and creates dramatic scenarios with little imagination or spontaneity—but the sidestep towards comedy at least introduces a feisty unpredictability that makes Iñárritu’s self-importance more bearable. If the director ever stops trying so hard to prove his greatness, maybe he’ll make a film worthy of such a claim.