Attempting to review Birdman, the new film from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, is somewhat trepidatious, not least because midway through the film, troubled protagonist Riggan Thompson launches into a bile-spewing tirade against just such criticism. In his case it is New York Times theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson, whose reviews can make or break a play in just 500 words, but the attitude and the sentiment most certainly spreads to cinema critics too. One of the many great ironies in the film, however, is just how much these artists pander to their critics, are beholden to their audiences and scrap in the gutter with each other in search of those precious few moments in the spotlight, and column inches on the front page.
The fickle relationship between performers and their audiences is engrained deep within the fabric of Birdman. Thompson, uncannily portrayed by Michael Keaton, was once the biggest star in Hollywood with the hugely successful superhero franchise from which the film takes its title. Then, a crisis of conscience, a desire to be rid of the cowl and be appreciated as a true artist – along with numerous other reasons we suspect – causes him to turn his back on the series and inevitably disappear into obscurity. Until now. 20 years and a broken marriage later, Thompson has come to Broadway, having adapted a Raymond Carver novel for the stage, which he is to direct and star in. While a core fanbase is thrilled to see him back in action once more, others approach with a certain morbid curiosity, while the critics have already begun sharpening their knives.
After a series of incredibly dark and brooding dramas, including Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful, Inarritu here presents a comedy. A pitch black, ascerbic, barbed satire of fame, celebrity, the arts, ageing and the inherent fragility of masculinity, Birdman is no less ambitious than the fractured narratives on which the director made his name, and on a technical level is perhaps his most ambitious project yet. Playing out supposedly in one single continuous take, albeit with time lapses, transitions and numerous hidden edits along the way, Birdman is a whirlwind tour behind the scenes of a manic stage production rife with its own gallery of oddball characters, relationships, rivalries and unfolding dramas.
Inarritu assembles a fantastic ensemble including Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough and Amy Ryan to portray the rabid collective of actors, producers, and family members who encircle Riggan Thompson in this, his most desperate hour. Norton plays the pretentious, pitifully fragile prima donna brought in as a last-minute replacement, Emma Stone is Riggan’s daughter slash assistant, a recovering addict desperate for some love and attention. Naomi Watts is the ageing insecure actress failing miserably at her career and relationship, while Galifianakis’ producer is close to losing his mind as he attempts to keep all these disparate threads together at least until opening night.
Captaining this ship of fools is a man whose very sanity is unraveling by the minute. Haunted by the voice of his caped creation, the lingering spectre of Birdman hangs over Riggan at every turn, criticising and baiting this washed-up has-been, never letting him forget he turned down Birdman 4. But as much as Riggan feels possessed and victimised, he needs Birdman, often turning to his cinematic alter-ego for encouragement and empowerment when drugs, booze and flattery all fail. These are the best moments of Birdman – a film that barely stops for breath thanks to its whirlwind camerawork and invigorating improv drum score from Antonio Sanchez. Inarritu maintains a brilliantly manic energy throughout, which when coupled with Keaton’s nervous, adrenaline-and-paranoia fuelled anxiety, makes for a feverish, and frequently hilarious experience.
Having always had a soft spot for films willing to dismantle the male ego, Birdman falls at my feet, gift-wrapped as a near-perfect film. That Keaton is willing to play so close to his perceived public persona, and dramatise his own faltering career in such comedic, self-effacing fashion, only ingratiates Riggan Thompson to his audience all the more – no mean feet when the man is borderline certifiable and a liability to himself and everyone around him. Less a career-defining role, than it is encapsulating of the many different facets of Keaton’s comedian-superhero-psycho journeyman livelihood on the silver screen. Likewise, Norton apes his own questionable reputation as an overbearing, invasive presence with the same winning blend of absurdity and accuracy that results in some of his best work in quite some time. Oftentimes Norton can come across as over-serious and cold, but here shines in the warm glow of self-mocking brilliance.
There is so much to enjoy in Birdman that this review could quickly become a procession of “labels, opinions and observations” that would incur the wrath of Riggan himself and inevitably fail to capture the uniquely invigorating experience of this film. Suffice to say that rarely do we get a film so expertly in tune with the current climate of social media celebrity, so nostalgic yet cynical for classic Hollywood star power, so aware of the rivalries between cinema and theatre, artists and critics, performers and their audiences. To then deliver a raft of awards-worthy performances from its impeccable cast, all captured using some of the most innovative, yet unobtrusive cinematographic and editorial techniques ever seen results in cinematic gold. Inarritu’s final triumph is that he somehow also manages to make his dissection of masculinity and celebrity into a superhero movie, and should bring any discerning cineaste to their knees.
Birdman is a heroic achievement.