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What we talk about when we talk about Birdman

by Greg Carlson | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Cinema | November 19th, 2014

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Birdman” gives Michael Keaton the “Being John Malkovich” treatment in a messy, noisy backstage drama enamored of its own ruminations about art and artifice, celebrity worship, self-respect, narcissism and several dozen additional big ideas. In 2000, “Amores Perros,” the first installment of Inarritu’s “death trilogy,” divided audiences, a trait extending through “21 Grams,” “Babel” and “Biutiful.” Those who share the filmmaker’s penchant for insane coincidence, exaggerated melodrama and heart-on-sleeve emotional outpourings often praise the director’s visual intensity. Detractors, like Scott Tobias, pronounce Inarritu a “pretentious fraud” who is “incapable of modulation.”

Keaton plays the living daylights out of Hollywood has-been Riggan Thomson, an actor who walked away from the blockbuster “Birdman” franchise two decades ago and is now preparing a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” as writer, director and star. Fragile, stressed, and nearly broke, Thomson replaces one of his principal performers with stage darling Mike Shiner (Edward Norton, volume knob cranked), a manipulative scene-thief. Meanwhile, Riggan tiptoes around his rightfully resentful daughter Sam (Emma Stone), a recovering addict now serving as her father’s assistant. Thomson’s relationship with co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is hitting the skids. Oh yeah, he also hears voices, can levitate, and possesses the power to move objects with his mind. 

Along with “Being John Malkovich,” “Birdman” recalls “Synecdoche, New York,” another Charlie Kaufman script that plays with the conundrum of honesty/dishonesty in film and theatre. Kaufman is a better hand than Inarritu at communicating the vicissitudes of the gossamer veil blurring reality and fantasy. Some of the movie’s side trips, like the blossoming romance between Sam and Mike, don’t fully pay off, and “Birdman” is at its best when focused on Riggan’s rapidly escalating crises. In one scene, Riggan struts through Times Square in his tighty whiteys after accidentally getting locked out of the St. James Theatre. At moments like this one, Keaton makes it difficult for the viewer to root against his shallow egomaniac – despite the character’s apparent addiction to attention-seeking behavior.   

Inarritu, working with the phenomenal cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, constructs “Birdman” to look as though the majority of the action occurs as one continuous, unbroken take. Lubezki defends the technique by claiming that viewers can become “immersed in the movie” via the uninterrupted exchanges of dialogue. The gambit can be exhausting, but the wide-angle lenses and imaginative, ever-shifting compositions function as a reflection of Riggan’s hyperactive desperation. Lubezki’s vertiginous camera also swoops and soars from ledges and rooftops to street level. The film’s final shot, wholly dependent on camera position, cements the director’s commitment to this unorthodox shooting style.     

“The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” is Inarritu’s subtitle, a reference to both the filmmaker’s hellzapoppin impetuousness and to the eventual headline of the New York Times review of Riggan’s play by theatre writer Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan). When critics show up in movies, chances are pretty good they will provide instant conflict for the performers who simultaneously fear and court them. It’s easy to read Dickinson as Inarritu’s straw woman, but in a terrific scene, she makes a powerful point about the value of championing original work over the adaptations and revivals that keep the cash registers ringing. Tabitha is Riggan’s bête noir, but she might just be the movie’s secret hero.

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