Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” is the kind of movie on which graduate students will write detailed theses and film professors will enthusiastically present to their classes. It is a metatextual buffet of themes and ideas that will demand thoughtful discussion (and quite possibly a flow chart). It is the kind of flick that will prompt cinephiles to scold those who refer to it as a ‘movie;’ it is a ‘film’ in the most academic sense, yet it manages to be artfully minded while still pleasurable.
On the most superficial level “Birdman” is about washed-up movie star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton). After having spent the better part of his career playing ‘Birdman,’ a latex-muscle-suited superhero, Thomson’s career is running on fumes. The former star and his best friend/manager (Zach Galifianakis) have pinned their hopes on an off-broadway adaptation of a boozy Raymond Carver short story. Thomson is producing, directing and starring in the play as a kind of hail-mary pass for relevance that seems headed for disaster. It does not help that Thomson has incredible powers of telekinesis and is slowly breaking from reality.
It seems impossible to discuss “Birdman” without first a history lesson on the career of Michael Keaton. A starring role as the dark knight in Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman” rocketed Keaton to super-stardom. He repeated the role in the successful 1992 sequel, “Batman Returns” and was slated to star in a third before behind-the-scenes problems scuttled his involvement. However, Keaton spent the next decade struggling to find good films and better roles. In time he faded from the limelight, with rumors that he was in self-imposed career exile.
The lesson is important, as there is a clear analogous relationship between Keaton and his character in “Birdman.” Thomson is clearly talented, yet unable to get out of the shadow of his superhero role. He is filled with a simmering rage as Robert Downey Jr. appears on the TV, arguably the highest profile actor alive courtesy of a role in the Marvel films.
Keaton’s performance in the film is masterful and nuanced– his frustration, desperation and bewilderment is palpable. Yet it is all akin to a serpent eating its own tail. Keaton is starring in a weighty, artsy film that parallels his own life playing an autobiographical character who is trying to regain relevance by launching a broadway career with a weighty, artsy stage production. Again, a flowchart may be required.
Iñárritu’s clever narrative twist in the midst of this metatextual layer cake is that Thomson’s inner monologue is delivered by his gravel-voiced Birdman persona. It is ego personified, taking every opportunity to encourage himself to return to playing the hero– that he is just one surgery away from stardom.
“People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit,” Birdman growls.
Whether Birdman is addressing Thomson or the audience, or whether Iñárritu is commenting on his own film is hard to say.
Iñárritu’s film craft is relentless. The entirety of “Birdman” is presented as a single, continuous take with the camera tracking and moving through and around the theater building without pause. The technique is marvelous but can feel straining at times, leaving a viewer in want of the natural breaks that cuts can provide.
In an early scene Thomson fields questions at a small press junket. An effete journalist lectures the room about the wisdom of Roland Barthes while antagonizing Thomson about his flagging career. Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), a theater critic, dresses down Thomson telling him she thinks he is a dilettante, dabbling with an art form of which he is unaware. She promises to destroy his play with a review. Yet earlier in the film it is intimated that she is sleeping with Thomson’s co-star Mike (Edward Norton) in exchange for writing a flattering piece on him. Critics are the Supervillains to Birdman’s hero– intellectually arrogant, craven, gross and wielding dangerous powers that can ruin lives. The idea is a little silly, and perhaps apt.
Iñárritu’s”Birdman” is jam packed with themes and ideas served with a great panache. It is funny and moving while also smartly commenting on art, culture, ego and fame. In short, it’s a complete thought presented in a well-crafted package. This is rare in today’s culture of disposable media and films with little texture and even less to say.
Let the pre-writing on your “Birdman” dissertation begin.