What We Talk About When We Talk About Birdman
Much of the recent press coverage of writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new film Birdman has focused on the film’s meta aspects concerning the casting of actor Michael Keaton in the lead role as a former big screen superhero trying to restart his career. Keaton himself famously played Batman in two films over 20 years ago, only to find his star fading as new actors assumed the role. In interviews, Keaton has been asked repeatedly about being cast in a role so close to his own reality, and he has steadfastly distanced himself from speculating on any deeper meaning of the coincidence. I think it’s important, then, to look at the film on its own terms, and not just as some sort of reflection of Keaton’s career arc. And, indeed, the movie is one of the fall season’s best so far – a highly entertaining, wickedly funny, brilliant black comedy.
Oscar-nominated director Iñárritu (Babel, Biutiful, 21 Grams) has assembled a top-notch cast to tell his story of the actor Riggan Thomson (Keaton), who, we are told, experienced early success starring as the blockbuster superhero Birdman, but then turned down sequels only to see his fame quickly dissipate. Eager to make a comeback, Riggan decides to write, direct, and star in a theatrical adaption of Raymond Carver’s heady short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. As the film begins, we witness Riggan’s nervous energy as the Broadway play’s cast and crew go through rehearsals and previews and ready themselves for opening night. Along the way, the Birdman character (also Keaton) appears on screen, visible only to Riggan and to us. He offers Riggan encouragement and advice as one mishap after another occurs, as Riggan, increasingly unhinged, has to deal with moody actors with fragile egos, funding challenges, and various other overwhelming personal and professional problems, including his own consuming self-doubt.
The result is one of the most searingly funny, biting satires about show business since Robert Altman’s The Player (and, interestingly, Altman himself adapted Raymond Carver’s Short Cuts for the screen a year after The Player came out. Coincidence? Perhaps, but I wouldn’t put anything past Iñárritu). In Iñárritu’s sly and sharp script, nothing is safe from ridicule: the Broadway theater scene, Hollywood blockbusters, social media, egotistical actors, the quest for fame, and yes, even theater and film critics come under the knife in moments that are often simultaneously cringe-inducing and savagely funny, but always inspired. The film is chock full of name-dropping and pointed barbs – so much so that I’m guessing the audience probably will only be privy to about half the in-jokes. Celebrities like Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Goldie Hawn, Robert Downey Jr., Martin Scorsese, and Meg Ryan all get a mention, for better or worse, bringing a level of veracity and a dishy insider’s awareness to the proceedings.
As such, you can tell the cast is having great fun with Iñárritu’s clever premise and script, and that feeling is infectiously conveyed through some of the year’s best performances. Keaton is a revelation here – throwing vanity to the wind, he gives a no-holds barred performance, that, despite his protestations to the press, seems to wink openly at the audience (“I’m the answer to a trivial pursuit question,” he says at one point). Alternately achingly sad and hysterically funny, Keaton expertly captures the pathos of a man whose grasp on reality seems as tenuous as the adulation of a fickle public. Riggan both craves and loathes the public’s affections, and Keaton masterfully portrays that dichotomy with an energy that is both maddeningly frenetic and hauntingly perceptive.
Equally effective are Edward Norton, as Mike, a pompous Broadway acting legend whose arrogance belies a host of insecurities, and Emma Stone, as Riggan’s daughter and assistant Sam, recently released from rehab, and more attuned to interpersonal dynamics than her father realizes (a scene in which she incisively tears into her father is simply breathtaking). Zach Galifianakis dials down his usual manic persona to turn in an understated but comically dry performance as Riggan’s frazzled attorney and producer. And Naomi Watts as an insecure actress, Amy Ryan as Riggan’s ex-wife and Sam’s mother (in an inspired bit of casting), and Lindsay Duncan as an especially vicious and ridiculous theater critic all give exceptional performances in smaller but vital roles.
Aside from Keaton’s casting, the other element of the film that has received much advance buzz is its cinematography – there were early rumors that the entire film was shot in one long take. That proves not to be the case, but master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (last year’s cinematography Oscar winner for Gravity) does achieve something very close, using only a few well-crafted cuts to give the illusion of seamlessness. Such a technique helps the audience acutely sense the claustrophobia Riggan must be feeling – the entire first 20 or so minutes of the film are indeed one continuous take inside the cramped back stage theater space, and, as such, we immediately feel the dizzying effect of Riggan’s stifling sense of urgency.
As is often typical of Iñárritu’s work, this film does contain some fantastical components; a bit of magic realism is definitely present (in one scene, Mike is seen reading Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths, a staple of the genre). The ending itself, too, is particularly open to interpretation and speculation, so viewers who prefer neat and tidy realism in their cinematic experiences can consider themselves warned. Thematically, though, this absurd and wondrous tone fits right in with the ideas Iñárritu explores in the film. Iñárritu raises questions about artistic integrity, the creative process, the nature of fame, and, perhaps most importantly, about the need for love and connection. At one point, Riggan’s ex-wife tells him, “You confuse love with admiration.” How do we, as humans – – and, maybe, especially as humans who are artists who share their work – – tell the difference? Does it even matter?
Iñárritu opens his picture with an epigraph – a Raymond Carver poem that is also the inscription on Carver’s tombstone:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
Iñárritu and his cast have given us a prescient and pointed commentary on the absurdity that often accompanies the quest for such love. The quest is crazy and irrational and, ultimately, human; how can we not laugh at that? We can, Iñárritu says, and we should.
Birdman opens today at the Landmark Embarcadero Cinema in San Francisco, on October 31st at the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley, and on Nov. 7th at the Landmark Piedmont in Oakland.