Birdman may just prove that there are second acts in life, American or otherwise. Not only Michael Keaton’s best role in more than a decade, it also represents a surprisingly mellow Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose worldview, if not especially brighter, has at least been filtered through a comic lens. It may be wishful thinking, but the global nihilism of his earlier projects now seems mere prelude to a surprisingly poignant meditation on fame and its lingering aftereffects.
Which isn’t to say that the film could in any way be described as “feel good.” Starring Keaton as a past-his-prime superhero actor looking to regain credibility and relevance by adapting, directing, and starring in Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love on Broadway, it’s an exercise in a Murphy’s Law-level of absurd occurrences besieging its play-within-a-film. Birdman, né Riggan Thomson, has to be told of the importance of social media by his fresh-from-rehab daughter (Emma Stone) while also dealing with his manager (Zach Galifianakis), ex-wife (Amy Ryan), last-minute-replacement co-star (Edward Norton), co-star whom he’s sleeping with (Andrea Riseborough), and co-star whom he actually gets along with pretty well (Naomi Watts) on the eve of their first preview. Iñárritu manages to give each of these characters something interesting to do, the power dynamics between them constantly shifting.
Always-ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki frames the proceedings, the vast majority of which take place within the theater itself, as though the entire movie were composed of one continuous shot. The effect is similar to holding your breath or not being allowed to blink. Initially coming across as a gimmick, the Rope-like technique eventually feels seamless. Every scene ends at a point that leaves us wanting more, and yet the next is usually so engaging that we quickly forget about everything else. It’s a refreshing change of pace for González Iñárritu, who’s usually wont to go overboard and leave too little to the imagination.
Still, his anti-critic harangue is petty coming from a writer-director whose spotty filmography has largely been met with critical praise: In addition to a New York Times theater reviewer who vows to destroy the play before seeing it, there’s a note in Riggan’s dressing room reading, “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.” Both feel overly pointed, but, on a less meta level, do at least serve as credible fuel on Riggan’s slow-burning fire: Nothing has gone right for him in years, and the play he’s invested so much time and money in is turning into a train wreck that he can do nothing but helplessly observe.
Like a tiny devil on his shoulder, Riggan’s masked alter ego sows doubt by telling him to give up these highbrow aspirations and return to the billion-dollar franchise he abandoned in the early ’90s. (Sound familiar?) The disembodied voice, strange though it may be, isn’t his only “mental formation,” as he also appears to have actual superpowers—at least when he’s alone. “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige,” Norton’s renowned Broadway thespian tells the Hollywood washout; allusions to both Icarus and the phoenix shed light on just what kind of bird he is, and both are valid points of reference. The desire to still matter after his early successes have long since faded from most people’s memories compels him to go beyond his comfort zone and reinvent himself, even if it means flying too close to the sun.
González Iñárritu may be flattering himself if we’re to extend the metaphor beyond the character and toward the creator, but if this represents an actual reconfiguration of his sensibilities and not a mere one-off, then perhaps we can consider films like Babel the necessary ashes from which Birdman had to rise and hope his ascendance continues.
The Telluride Film Festival ran from August 29—September 1.
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