Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis
Rating: 3.5 stars
Few films say quite as much, and quite so succinctly, about some aspects of life (and the movies) in the 21st century, as Birdman. Ostensibly, the film is about a fading Hollywood star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) who is writing, directing and starring in a production of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love for Broadway. Famous for starring in a superhero franchise called Birdman, when he opts out of the series, he struggles to stay relevant to a fickle audience. A reinvention as a serious theatre artiste, he hopes, will give his career a much-needed boost.
As he works on his production at the St. James Theatre on Broadway, he finds himself helped and hindered in various measures by his daughter Sam, fresh out of rehab (Emma Stone), his producer/best friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis) and his lead actresses Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Laura (who has been his girlfriend for the past two years and may just be pregnant with his child, played by Andrea Riseborough). When the film opens, we see Riggan meditating, calmly levitating a few inches above the ground, as a gravelly voice mocks his present circumstances. We learn that this is the voice of Birdman himself — who Riggan may have left behind, but who hasn’t quite left Riggan — and is with him at all the crucial (and not so crucial) moments of his life. Oh, and there’s the tiny matter of Riggan’s “superpowers” — an ability to move objects by sheer force of will.
Hope momentarily shines bright when a brilliant stage actor, Mike (Edward Norton) joins the cast. But his decided eccentricities (he drinks on stage in the interests of realism, screams at their preview audience, destroys the set, is well on his way to seducing Riggan’s daughter Sam) and his attempts to upstage Riggan, make him more of a nuisance.
While the interactions between these actors, and their attempts to put up a play on which so much is at stake, would have made for compelling enough viewing, in Birdman, these form the basis for discussing larger questions: Is there something called “good” art? Does making a commercially successful film (or creative enterprise) mean you cannot be called an artist? Why do we seek validation? Does experiencing something through your cellphone screen/camera viewfinder make what you’ve seen/heard any less real; does it reduce the firsthand nature of the experience? And if you do not have a Facebook page, does it mean you do not exist?
Birdman brings up all of these questions and more. It is also full of meta-references that may require multiple viewings to fully grasp. For instance, early in the film when Riggan is having a frantic conversation with his producer Jake about bringing in an actor to replace one of the injured cast-members, he suggests gifted actors like Woody Harrelson, Michael Fassbender, Jeremy Renner — only to have Jake tell him they’re all working on superhero franchises (“The third Hunger Games”; “the prequel to the X Men prequel”; and “He’s an Avenger,” Jake says. To which Riggan replies, “What? They put him in a cape too?”) And when Riggan returns to his room, he sees on TV, an interview with Robert Downey Jr about his third Iron Man film. The scene’s irony comes from the fact that actor Michael Keaton himself starred as Batman in Tim Burton’s films. Mike — who Riggan manages to rope in, and who constantly stresses the superiority of theatre artistes over Hollywood stars — has in Edward Norton, an actor with his own blockbuster superhero film (The Incredible Hulk).
There are other, subtle winks too. When Riggan tries to explain to his ex-wife why it’s so important to him that his new play do well, he tells her that he’s always feared being in an airplane with George Clooney (who took over as Batman after Keaton and Val Kilmer) because if the plane were to crash and Sam was to pick up the newspapers the next day, it wouldn’t even be Riggan’s photo on the front page. “Farah Fawcett died on exactly the same day as Michael Jackson,” he points out, but no one remembers that. His ex-wife offers words that are perhaps less than reassuring: “You’re no Farah Fawcett,” she tells Riggan.
Digs at pop culture (when Riggan’s girlfriend realises she isn’t pregnant, they share a moment of relief: “We’d have been terrible parents; we might have raised the next Justin Bieber,” they shudder; when Jake feels Riggan might be dissatisfied with some reconstructive surgery, he quips, “Don’t worry, we can get the guy who does Meg Ryan’s nose.”) and social media (Riggan and Mike’s one upmanship doesn’t end at who will make the front page of the Culture section at the New York Times — they’re also fighting for the most number of YouTube views for their embarrassing antics) abound. There’s also some caricaturing of the journalist types covering the entertainment and culture beat (from the “tight-assed” NYT critic who decides to “destroy” Riggan’s play without even seeing it, to the “bimbo” who asks him during a press meet if he “injects the semen of baby pigeons” for facial rejuvenation). The sharp dialogues and the atmosphere of the film — a kind of boozy, smoky feel — accentuated by the jazz drumbeats of Antonio Sanchez bring to life this world that Riggan and his fellow actors inhabit. It is a world of claustrophobic corridors and crowded dressing rooms and constant backstage activity, captured wonderfully by the director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki. The impression is that these characters are somehow “hemmed in”, and director Alejandro G. Iñárritu (of Babel, 21 Grams fame) skillfully escalates that feeling over the course of the film.
If there’s a sticking point (and this may differ depending on what your tastes are in film/literature), it’s the magical realism — does Riggan really have superpowers? Can he, as he believes, fly Bidman? Is he really Birdman? The film prefers not to answer those questions in a straightforward way.
Keaton has already been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar; but rarely do films bring together so many gifted actors, all perfectly cast. Ed Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis and Naomi Watts are always engaging. Actors, in a film about actors, they ultimately make Birdman work, at all the levels it aspires to.