Monday, November 17, 2014
There is nothing in the previous films of Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu to prepare you for the scene early in Birdman in which a man named Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) uses telekinetic powers to make a paint can fall on someone’s head. Riggan is an actor, once the star of the “Birdman” superhero franchise, who in an effort to regain his reputation is on Broadway directing and starring in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Birdman follows the last few days before the production opens and Riggan and his collaborators face an assortment of reckonings. If Birdman (full title: Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is to be taken at face value then Innaritu means it as a critique of art-as-product, both in Hollywood and the most commercial American theatre. Innaritu has chosen big targets and brought technical virtuosity and an unimpeachable cast to bear, but finally I’m not sure that the arguments Birdman is making are either interesting or all that accurate.
Much of Birdman takes place in a Broadway theatre, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) uses the set as his stage to give a performance that may win him a second Oscar. The bulk of the film appears to be one single take; Lubezki’s camera swoops around corners and inside dressing rooms with a breathlessness that is I think meant to invoke the onrushing opening night of Riggan’s play and the careening psychological health of its star. Riggan has extended himself both professionally and personally, risking his own money on the play and hiring his recovering addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone) as an assistant. Michael Keaton is more than game for what Innaritu asks of him, and he throws himself into the more surreal scenes with the perfect amount of dry wit. Yet I’m not sure Riggan - who hears a running interior monologue from his Birdman character - is quite the holy fool that Innaritu wants him to be. Riggan is meant to be reclaiming his soul as an artist, but he has been handed the keys (really, he has a key) to the summit of American professional theatre and given what appears to be unchecked creative control of a production that in the glimpses we get combines kitchen-sink drama with surrealism and the most awkward moments of actors walking downstage to deliver a Big Speech. There are no producers hounding Riggan to make cuts or cast changes, only Zach Galifianakis as a beleaguered flunky. Innaritu’s placement of Hollywood and “The Theatre” as opposite poles of artistic achievement doesn’t hold up when we see Riggan’s ego being fed at the theatre just as much as it would have been on a blockbuster film set, and that’s why when surrealism begins to take over there is a sense that the film is out of control. Indeed, what does the “Birdman” character represent? By Innaritu’s own logic he should be a symbol of Hollywood as a destroyer of art, right there with Iron Man and the Transformers who are seen in a fantasy sequence as fighting on the stage of Riggan’s play. Instead it’s when Riggan embraces Birdman that the film suggests he brushes against genius.
It is too bad that the message of Birdman is so muddled because the cast delivers to a degree worthy of the filmmaking skill on hand. Edward Norton plays a vain stage actor who joins the production late and who is gradually revealed to be as bad at life as he is good at acting. Norton’s character is dating another member of the cast (a wonderful and raw Naomi Watts) and might make a better study of the sacrifices one must make for art than Riggan does. Norton is drawing on his own public image in the same way Keaton is, but I left the theater thinking about the women of Birdman. I’ve never seen Naomi Watts this earthy, and she is matched by Andrea Riseborough as her co-star and Riggan’s lover. Amy Ryan is touching as Riggan’s ex, but the movie belongs to Emma Stone as Sam. Stone is not asked to be charming for maybe the first time in her career and she runs with it, playing a messed-up young woman with untapped soul. (There is also Lindsay Duncan as a critic, but she gets saddled with a speech about how soul-killing Hollywood is.) If Birdman weren’t peddling such misconceived ideas then it could have been a glorious one-off about showbiz, the equivalent of finding a beloved book with illustrations you’ve never seen. Instead it ends up being a well-made curiosity best remembered for bringing Michael Keaton back where he belongs.