Tasty, ironic, incisive, and savagely audacious, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a weird brew of backstage black comedy and theatrical satire; a volcano of creative ideas in full eruption; and a dark comedy of desperation buoyed by unbridled artistic optimism. It will make you laugh out loud and curse the shadows, spinning you around six ways from Sunday.
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a washed-up actor who abandoned the Birdman franchise to reinvent his career by directing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” After the lead is injured, Riggan replaces him with famous method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). The play is produced by best friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis) and stars girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and actress Lesley (Naomi Watts); his assistant is estranged daughter Sam (Emma Stone, Easy A). Riggan’s ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan, Win Win) is tepidly supportive; New York Times critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) is openly hostile.
It’s a rich, startling, and multi-layered collage, finding writer-director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores perros, 21 Grams) in the mood for play, creating a meta-universe of mirrors, prop guns, and performances upon performances, and with a mighty cast that fields every pitch he throws. The film’s built around a role that Keaton had to become a has-been to play, and the long-missed actor delivers impressively. Norton and Stone get the punchiest scenes (two on a rooftop) and use them to full advantage; they’re instant Oscar-nomination reels.
Iñárritu’s overheated technique meshes perfectly with the overacting – the performers know Birdman’s a theatrical exercise and relish the chance to pull out the stops. Dazzling and rambling, intimate and sprawling, it’s a jubilant ride, a full-fledged wonder of showbiz about showbiz. Funny and fast-moving, the bravura gestures balance the film’s mystical ideas with a steady stream of inside jokes. Drummer Antonio Sanchez provides a hustling backbeat throughout – a thrumming, off-the-cuff, jazz percussion score.
As a simulated single-take of almost two hours, Birdman sizzles, scintillates, teases, taunts, barks, brays, preens, and careens with limitless energy. (To be clear, Hitchcock’s Rope did the same thing without digital trickery more than half a century ago.) Still, it’s a remarkable feat of choreography: everything had to be timed as in a dance. World-class cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, The Tree of Life, Gravity) wows once again with jaw-dropping cinematography that spins, pirouettes, and stays aloft scene after scene.
Serious, silly, and self-aware, Birdman questions stardom and celebrity, punctuated by humour that verges on slapstick; its tone is at once empathetic and acidic. Yet there’s an underlying anger in evidence, a rage against a movie market that champions superhero blockbusters and sidelines the talent that provokes discomfort. With its improvisatory style, its seamless shots, its surrealistic flourishes, and its well-calibrated shifts, Birdman provides an unpredictable response to the sea of mediocre formula at the centre of its critique. It makes an argument that everything flows together.
Like so many other films in 2014, Birdman proves that a kinetic film can soar on the wings of its technical prowess, even as the banality of its ideas threatens to drag it back to earth. Don’t get me wrong: the occasional downdrafts can’t keep Birdman from taking to the skies. It dips, and it also takes thrilling flight. But it’s hard not to leave with the suspicion that it signifies less than Iñárritu would have us believe.
Playing off the exaggerated conceits of Dogville, the documentary camerawork of The Wrestler, the thematic ambition of Synecdoche, New York, and the technological touchstones of The Social Network, Birdman ascends to great heights. It may not be as scalpel-sharp a dissection of Broadway, Hollywood, and fame in the 21st century as it thinks it is, but it’s a galvanic blast from start to finish. As suggested by the clever subtitle (a Kubrickian tribute, perhaps), blundering can be bliss.