There’s a lot about Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) that probably shouldn’t work. It’s a movie about movies and also a movie about the sort of theatre that movie stars get into when movies aren’t working out. It has a malevolent critic from The New York Times who makes assumptions about people’s art without even knowing their intentions. (Gasp!) It’s about a washed-up actor trying to stage a comeback and mend the many bridges he’s lit ablaze over the years, and like nearly any story of a theatre or film production, there’s chaos right up until, and even during, opening night. Also, periodically there are surreal flights of whimsy, as well as a score composed almost solely of a jazz drummer’s disjointed noodlings.
And yet, in the hands of perhaps the least likely filmmaker fathomable for this sort of movie, a man whose primary stock in trade to this point has been agony porn for dedicated cinephiles (Babel, 21 Grams, Biutiful), Birdman is a dizzying, sometimes hilarious, often moving cry of fury for and against what movies have become and can be and the unadulterated hubris it sometimes takes to make God’s-honest art. It’s a film of overwhelming ambition, and for Inarritu a chance to comment on the state of modern American cinema and culture at large. It aspires to the heights of a meta-textual commentary like A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and as such has to carry itself with the weight of its own importance out of necessity. If that’s more than some viewers can abide, they’re not necessarily wrong.
But to the movie itself. The actor in question is Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a Michael Keaton type who once upon a time was Birdman, an escapist summer action movie hero. Despite being a weirder actor at heart than his defining role might address, Riggan ended up ensconced in Birdman, agreeing to a full trilogy and never really recovering from the stigma around it. Presently, he’s trying to stage a Raymond Carver adaptation of his own design titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the sort of Broadway prestige project that Hollywood stars have indulged in for years. He adapted it, he’s directing it, and he’s the star, alongside his occasional lover Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and Lesley (Naomi Watts), an up-and-comer grateful for Riggan’s star power but worried about his deteriorating mental state.
And it is deteriorating. From his dealings with his endlessly harried producer (Zach Galifinakis) to Mike (Edward Norton), the obnoxious Method actor in a key supporting role who threatens to destroy everything Riggan’s worked for, Birdman is the chronicle of Riggan’s struggles to keep himself together long enough to stage the sort of comeback that popular culture has told us washed-up actors like Riggan are entitled to. But Riggan has bigger problems, chiefly related to Birdman, who still lives in Riggan’s brain as a constant, nagging reminder of what a failure he is. (Riggan’s also kinda-sorta telekinetic, which may or may not be related to the Birdman within; perhaps wisely, the film doesn’t expand too much on the parameters of this.) As Riggan attempts to corral Mike, make peace with his estranged daughter/assistant Sam (Emma Stone) and ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), and keep Birdman from taking over entirely, it’s clear that Birdman is headed for some kind of disaster, and it’s disappointing when the film ultimately subverts the expected one for a less rote but somehow even more expected one.
Backing up, though, Birdman is an overwhelming experience, a satirical assault on the senses that’s hard to believe even as it’s seen. Working with the noted cinematographic trickster Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, Gravity), Inarritu fashions Birdman as a stream-of-consciousness immersion into the endless, catacomb-like gangways inhabited by a creative type attempting to fulfill his outsized, perhaps outmatched visions of a game-changing masterpiece, perfect for a film in which Inarritu’s aims are more or less the same. That’s either a virtue of or problem with Birdman depending on one’s perspective. The film often appears to actively court scorn, from Lindsay Duncan’s aforementioned jaded critic to the nonstop insider baseball references. Inarritu has a lot to say about mainstream cinema and the ways in which we talk about it, particularly in the film’s surrealist fugue of a climax, and he intends to force audiences to talk about it whether or not they want to, have already grown tired of it, or are even interested in it.
It’s a bold movie and one that’s likely going to earn Inarritu a lot of accusations of pretense. But Birdman is a good movie, in spurts an exceptionally good one, and even the bits that fall flat have the benefit of feeling wholly essential to the film’s everything-at-the-wall approach to pop criticism. Does Sam’s burgeoning offstage relationship with the difficult Mike end up mattering? Not particularly, but it’s the result of a barnburner of a monologue by Stone about her father’s many failures. Did Inarritu really need to stage a visual homage to Mulholland Drive via Riseborough and Watts? Probably not, but it’s another observation among many designed to situate the film in its strange space between creative nonfiction and utter madness.
Perhaps the biggest question of them all is whether the use of Norton and Keaton’s star personae as the basis of their characters is too cute by half. That one’s easier to answer, because frankly, it’s irrelevant when it leads to two performances this audaciously good. Norton plays up his “difficult, cerebral actor” reputation to hysterical effect, turning Mike into the sort of Artist-with-a-capital-A who’s spent so much of his life performing that he can barely function as a human being. He’s as passionate and committed as Riggan is panicked and flop-sweating, but he’s every bit as much a self-serving egomaniac in his own special way. By the time he gets into nearly-nude fisticuffs with Riggan, you’re surprised it took the director this long to square up against his co-star.
And then there’s Keaton, who ironically enough may be about to enjoy the kind of career resurgence that Inarritu is at once satirizing and ennobling. Riggan isn’t entirely without his merits, but as Birdman unfolds, it’s clear that whatever they are have taken a backseat for far too many years to his unchecked ego. His inner id-fueled Birdman reminds him that he could’ve been a reality star instead of a failure, but to Riggan they’re synonymous with one another. For better or worse, Riggan wants to be an artist with something to say, and though neither he nor the film ever fully seem to realize that deciding to have something to say isn’t actually equivalent to having something of value to say, the weathered urgency with which Keaton flails his way to opening night is powerful, memorable, and the kind of later-career performance to which many actors only aspire.
At its best, Birdman cuts through the noise of its showbiz ravings and cuts to the core of the “second act” fantasy that popular culture endlessly fetishizes. (Just think about the dialogue surrounding Ben Affleck and Argo’s Oscar run for a recent example.) While the film might sometimes get bogged down by the sheer volume of ideas and discourses that Inarritu wants to impart, it’s in the service of a film that, like Riggan, is flush with Quixotic vision, a film that swings violently for the heady, philosophical fences that critics usually love as though it has no other choice. To reuse an earlier adjective, and one that’ll likely come up a lot in the next few months about the film, Birdman is an act of audacity of the highest possible caliber, a movie that’s constantly criticizing its very existence even as it unfolds, dissecting itself in manic-depressive fashion before anybody else possibly can. It’s every bit as nakedly vulnerable at its center as Riggan’s Carver adaptation is at its own, and in that, it finds its truest virtue, the one the title promises and the film eventually comments upon in bleak strokes.
Now it’s up to the world to decide what meaning it’ll have, even though this counters the incantation on Riggan’s mirror (paraphrased): “A thing is a thing, not what’s said about that thing.” Birdman at once says a lot about itself as a thing, and what people might say about it as a thing, but what it can’t control, no matter how badly it might want to, is how much meaning truly does come from what people will say about it as a thing. Perhaps that’s the point.