In Masterful “Birdman,” Michael Keaton Goes Mad. Much Fun Is Had.

Birdman

Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)

The Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu has been making feature films since the year 2000, when his masterful triptych Amores Perros was released. Scripted by Guillermo Arriaga (who turned director, himself, in 2008, with the depressingly mediocre The Burning Plain), that movie followed three separate stories in Mexico City – all involving, in some way, dogs – as they intersected and diverged over the course of many months. Before turning to full-length films, González Iñárritu had for year, like David Fincher before him, honed his craft on commercials, and his cinematic confidence as he juggled the many different threads of Amores Perros was a marvel to behold. What especially impressed was the fact that he wasn’t all flash – con brio, e non con braggadocio – and that the stories had narrative weight and consequence.

What followed were films equally as confident and similarly masterful – at least in terms of their mise-en-scène – but much less meaningful. Both 21 Grams and Babel – written by Arriaga, as well – allowed González Iñárritu to continue to explore his love of multiple overlapping stories and fluid chronology, but when they reached their respective conclusions they revealed not much more than a naked emperor, fascinating as their cinematic trappings may have been. Biutiful, his next film, was made after he and Arriaga had a falling out, and it eschewed the focus on multiple protagonists to give us a hard look at one man (Javier Bardem) dying of cancer. An even bleaker movie than González Iñárritu’s earlier films, it featured a powerful central performance and much more straightforward camera and editing work than we had grown accustomed to. It was nice to see the director trying something new. Still, dark despair does not always equal profundity, and the film, though effective in certain scenes, managed to leave me cold in the face of death.

And now we have something new: a comedy (though a bleak one). Fresh as that might sound to aficionados of González Iñárritu’s work, what’s even more innovative is how he has transformed his earlier technique of layering multiple narratives and shifting chronologies into a seemingly linear story that looks like a single unbroken camera take (that is, without edits). From the time we first meet our hero, Riggan Thompson – played by Michael Keaton (in top form and much better served here than by RoboCop) – the camera, though extremely restless, never cuts. Or so it seems. González Iñárritu and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (an Oscar-winner for Gravity and heretofore the main cinematographer for another Mexican director, Alfonso Cuarón) have carefully crafted the film to look that way, though in actuality it was not shot as a single take. And if that were all this movie were – an example of bravura filmmaking and choreography – then it would fascinate, for sure, but remain a meaningless magic trick. Instead, this technique is an integral part of the story, since it brings us into the visceral feverish madness of the lead character by bending time and perspective (González Iñárritu’s usual obsessions).

Riggan Thompson is a washed-up former action star, best known for his work in a series of superhero films (the Birdman of the title, which somewhat resemble the Batman films that Keaton, himself, once starred in). In an effort to rehabilitate his reputation, he has written (and is now directing and starring in), a Broadway play based on the writer Raymond Carver’s short story anthology What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Rehearsals are not going well. After a stage light falls on his male co-star, he is forced to bring on board an obnoxious New York thespian, Mike Shiner (a very funny Edward Norton, seen earlier this year in The Grand Budapest Hotel), whose volatility proves a dangerous addition to the production. Along for the ride is a cast of very fine actors, all at the top of their game: Emma Stone (Magic in the Moonlight) as Riggan’s daughter; Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover) as his nervous lawyer and friend; Naomi Watts (St. Vincent) as his female co-star; Andrea Riseborough (Oblivion) as his girlfriend (and other co-star); Amy Ryan (Win Win) as his ex-wife; and Lindsay Duncan (Le Weekend) as a nasty theater critic. All serve as both obstacles and opportunities in the way of Riggan’s success, and companions on his slide towards insanity.

The film is a wonderful meditation on the nature of art, its intersection with commerce, and how the search for validation – for admiration – through the creative process is no substitute for real human connections. As Riggan’s mind slowly disintegrates and the boundary between his alter ego and real self becomes indistinct, we see how the desperate need for love can destroy us if we can only take and not give. As the movie’s opening title card – a Carver poem, “Late Fragment,” from  A New Path to the Waterfall – proclaims:

  • “And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
  • I did.
  • And what did you want?
  • To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”

Did I mention that the film is also extremely funny? Never has madness been this entertaining.

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