Thursday, September 04, 2014
Judged by Howard Hawks' quality standard -- "three great scenes, no bad ones" -- "Birdman" features at least a dozen of the year's most electrifying onscreen moments (scrambled, so as to avoid spoilers): the levitation, the hallucination, the accident, the fitting, the daughter, the critic, the ex-wife, the erection, the kiss, the shot, the end and Times Square. Most films would be lucky to have one scene as indelible as any of these, and frankly, it's a thrill to see Inarritu back from whatever dark, dreary place begat "21 Grams," "Babel" and "Biutiful," three phony, contrived melodramas engineered to manipulate, while posing as gritty commentaries on the harsh world we inhabit.
With "Birdman," the director has broken from his rut of relying on shaky handheld camerawork to suggest "realism," or an invasive Gustavo Santaolalla score to force the desired reactions, instead finding fresh ways to delve into the human condition. (He has even altered his onscreen credit, condensing "Gonzalez" to a mere "G.," as if to acknowledge this new chapter.) Yes, the film is preoccupied with an aging actor's psyche, but it also addresses fatherhood, marriage, personal integrity and the enduring question of the legacy we leave behind -- as in an amusing scene in which Riggan imagines being upstaged by "Batman and Robin" star George Clooney in his obituary. Above all, it is an extremely clever adaptation of Carver's short story, simultaneously postmodern (ironically, a rather retro label) in its meta self-parody and cutting-edge, owing to the dynamism of its style.
Circling shark-like around Keaton, then darting off to stalk other actors, Lubezki's camera is alert and engaged at all times, an active participant in the nervous backstage drama. Taking a cue from Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope," the meticulously blocked shoot cleverly finds ways to mask cuts, using invisible visual effects to stitch together various scenes so it appears that the entire film is one continuous take, even though the events take place over several weeks and in various uptown Gotham locations -- primarily Broadway's St. James Theater, but venturing out anywhere that Riggan can walk or Birdman can fly.
Keaton — wrinkled, greying and bubbling with passion at every turn — rises to the challenge with fascinating determination on par with his character. The role feels heavy and veers dangerously close to becoming heavy-handed, but it also acknowledges that very challenge. Riggan meets his match when he casts obnoxious egomaniac Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) in the play, regularly coping with the actor's freewheeling willingness to screw things up onstage at every moment.
Norton, in his most enjoyably high-spirited turn since "Fight Club," relishes the opportunity to play the smarmy foe to Keaton's scowling demeanor. A battle between the two men, as Keaton whips Norton with a rolled-up New York Times featuring coverage of the play, oscillates between silly and energizing in one fell swoop. It might be the best physical achievement in both of their careers.
But Norton's wily temperament is matched by Stone, as Riggan's cynical daughter, who delivers a darker role than anything suggested in her earlier roles. Even Zach Galifianakis, as Riggan's hyperactive producer and best friend, manages to each beyond his goofy standards with a zany performance closer in form to Jeremy Piven's fast-talking agent on "Entourage."
Within the opening minutes, Iñarritu's script name-drops Michael Fassbender, Woody Harrelson and Jeremy Renner in the context of superhero franchise mania; later, Keaton glares in the mirror as the gruff voice of the costumed avenger he played decades earlier intones, "We're the real thing. We handed these posers the keys to the kingdom." His ex-wife assails him for "that ridiculous comedy you did with Goldie Hawn." His daughter puts it bluntly: "You aren't doing this for the sake of art." A steely-eyed critic at the local watering hole (Lindsay Duncan) says he's "a celebrity, not an actor." At every turn, Riggan is trapped by industrial forces that have moved on without him.
While the number of cheeky references to real-life actors and events pile up to an extreme degree, the exaggerated feel fits this canny satire, which is firmly rooted in the present. In a frantic monologue, Riggan's daughter assails her dad's old-school sensibilities: "You don't even have a Facebook page!" she exclaims. "It's like you don't exist." The looming threat of social media forms a compelling juxtaposition with the free-flowing camerawork: Riggan fights to keep track of his life even as everything around him grows increasingly fragmented.
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.