BIRDMAN or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
DIRECTOR: Alejandro G Iñárritu
CAST: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough
What do we talk about when we talk about movie stars? Likely, not Raymond Carver. But that’s the beauty of the latest film by director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu that frames Hollywood vs theatre, age vs youth, fame vs memory, and hope vs dream within the author’s short story, What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love, on the meaning of love.
All the action but for a scene or two happens within the confines of a hallowed Broadway theatre, more precisely between its stage, the backstage, the green rooms, the narrow and colourful corridors, the roof, and a small bar round the corner. In long takes, often reminiscent of a bird’s keen view, Keaton as former movie star Riggan Thomas explodes within that territory — be it levitating, literally, in his underwear; handling bad actors; tackling his harried producer Jake (Galifianakis, in a role completely unlike his others); juggling his roles as a debut screenplay writer-director and main actor; and, above all, handling criticism, including from a particularly trenchant New York Times’s reviewer, that he isn’t up to his new role at all. And then there is the voice in his head, of Birdman — the superman character he played in a hit series in the 1990s — that is trying to convince him that he can still be the star who raked in “billions”.
It isn’t just age or a decision to “mean something” that have brought Riggan away from Hollywood to the theatre though. It is also increasing irrelevance in times where he doesn’t have a Facebook or Twitter account and looks down upon bloggers — “it’s you who don’t exist”, judges his daughter, played with adequate youthful scorn and cynicism by Emma Stone.
Riggan has pale, freckled skin, a patchwork of discoloured hair, and that Birdman voice that won’t let him sleep. However, his eyes still believe, and his heart won’t allow him to stop trying. Even if it is to beg and later put up with the shiny new thing on Broadway, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), no less. Mike takes his “realism” seriously, to the extent of demanding real gin instead of water in a crucial scene in the Carver play, and insisting on actually doing it on stage in a lovemaking scene. Norton is fabulously cast as the pretentious smooth talker who takes himself as seriously as his persona, and his Mike is the perfect foil to Riggan, who believes he has got a chance to be himself for the first time.
Watts and Riseborough make up the rest of the cast, in both the play and the film.
Inarritu, who has ployed parallel narratives in films such as Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel, jettisons those for straight story-telling in a movie where the secondary universe only lives in Riggan’s head. A particularly satisfying scene involves Riggan streaking through Times Square dazzled and dazed, hailed and heckled by crowds that only faintly recall him as Birdman. Keaton himself played Batman in two films, a fact that isn’t lost on anyone watching Birdman. And the Birdman voice, by Keaton himself, sounds not unlike Batman, especially lately.
Even the string of actors whose names are thrown about in the film — Woody Harrelson, Michael Fassbender, Jeremy Renner, Johnny Depp Jr — all have successful film franchises behind them. There’s even a not-so-subtle stab at George Clooney, who has also played Batman, as well as his “damn chin” — with Riggan expressing apprehension that Clooney would overshadow his legacy.
However, no fear, this is among Inarritu’s best works and certainly Keaton’s. A couple of Golden Globes already under its belt, Birdman has garnered seven Oscar nominations. Keaton is angry, confused, desperate, funny, but never, ever bitter in a role that is easy to dismiss as a damnation of show business but is actually an affirmation of it. In a lesser actor, that could have gone the other way.
There is virtue in ignorance, but sometimes, equally unexpectedly, also in knowing something really well.