BirdmanReviewed By Stephen Groenewegen
Posted 03/31/15 20:00:56
These days most Hollywood blockbusters are released in Australia around the same time as the US. Unfortunately this is not the case for films deemed awards-worthy by their distributors. Piracy be damned; there’s an unwritten law that most ‘Oscar films’ need to be crammed into Australian cinemas during a three-week period in January-February. So Birdman, which debuted at the Venice Film Festival in August 2014 and was released in the US in October, didn’t arrive in Australia until January 2015, after nearly five months of hype.Now of course it has to contend with the additional burden of winning Best Picture at the Oscars. Will it stand in history alongside The Godfather (1972) as a worthy and acclaimed winner? Or will its win ultimately prove a head-scratching moment like that of Crash (2005)?
It’s too soon for the verdict of history, but happily Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), to give it its full title, at least lives up to the expectations of its delayed release. The earliest trailers for the film suggested another drama about a man on the wrong side of 50 facing an existential crisis. While the film is that, it’s also a witty backstage comedy.
Birdman is about putting on a play; there are elements of an updated the-show-must-go-on story, as Hollywood star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) exasperates his put-upon manager and best friend Jake (an understated Zach Galifianakis) with last-minute changes as his Broadway vanity project goes into previews. In the film’s world, Riggan is best known for playing the superhero Birdman in a trio of hit films from the 1990s. His stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story, ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’, is his shot at a legitimate comeback.
That’s a real story by Raymond Carver, by the way, whose fiction has inspired films like Short Cuts (Robert Altman, 1993) and Jindabyne (Ray Lawrence, 2006). Referencing real source material is typical of Birdman. The film is partly shot in a real Broadway theatre, the St James Theatre, and the theatre footage blends seamlessly with that shot on a studio set. The funniest sequence in the movie takes place at night in Times Square and there’s a surprising action sequence shot in the heart of Manhattan, the setting of so many superhero movies.
These nods to reality - which also include name-checking Avengers actors Robert Downey Jr and Jeremy Renner - help ground the more fantastical elements of the film. Fantastical, because Birdman is also an existential comedy about what’s going on in Riggan’s head. His alter-ego, Birdman, chastises him in gravelly, superhero tones inside his head for making dumb business decisions like rejecting a reality TV show in favour of a depressing Broadway play.
What makes Birdman such an impressive feat of filmmaking is how director Alejandro G Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (fresh from Gravity) put us inside Riggan’s head. There are lengthy sequences shot as if in one take, and the film is mostly set within the claustrophobic backstage corridors of the theatre, which must be what the chaotic insides of Riggan’s mind feel like.
The percussive drum score of Antonio Sanchez only adds to this; it’s an insistent pounding inside Riggan’s sleep-deprived head. Iñárritu twice cleverly places drum kits in the background of the action at unexpected moments, and it’s another way he keeps us on our figurative toes, wondering about the reality of what we’re seeing. Riggan has a note on his dressing-room mirror on this same theme: ‘A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing’.
The first scene in Birdman is of Riggan meditating, cross-legged (he’s also levitating, but we’ll come to that). Meditation can bring up all kinds of different aspects of ourselves and, ultimately, help integrate our different personalities. We meet a lot of Riggan’s different identities in the film - father, ex-husband, lover, Hollywood star, director, writer, producer, friend, insecure actor.
Iñárritu juggles the different tones in Birdman beautifully. The script - a collaboration between Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo - is full of unexpected, throwaway jokes about Hollywood, acting and the theatre. The comedy prevents Riggan’s self-absorption and narcissism being a turn-off. Iñárritu’s previous films - Biutiful (2010), Babel (2006) and 21 Grams (2003) - were sometimes a slog to sit through, heavy with suffering. But Riggan is not a fool we despise, and the pain he expresses is real.
The opening scene of Riggan meditating is funny - we might register first that he’s only wearing underpants before we notice him levitating. These magical realist moments are mostly taken for granted in the script, so it’s easy for us to as well. There are others - Riggan’s telekinetic powers conveniently bring a house light down on the head of his worst actor, forcing an 11th-hour replacement. Later, Birdman takes to the air for an extended sequence (a scene with a cab grounds us after that flight of fancy, but doesn’t end or spoil the illusions).
Michael Keaton played Batman on screen in 1989 and 1992 and is linked to that character by a certain generation. He’s an actor I must confess to having taken for granted, but he’s excellent as Riggan. He captures the humour and the pain I referenced earlier, as well as Riggan’s multiple - often conflicting - roles in writing, directing, producing and starring in the play, surrounded by his daughter (Emma Stone), ex-wife (Amy Ryan), scene-stealing co-star (Edward Norton) and lover (Andrea Riseborough). Keaton manages to play an actor losing confidence in himself, but also a man at other times supremely able to function in the moment. Highlights are small moments near the end of the film, when he looks into a mirror at himself - his selves - and then out a window into the city.
There is strong support from two other superhero veterans: Norton (The Incredible Hulk, 2008) as Riggan’s live-wire co-star and rival, and Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man movies) as Riggan’s unstable daughter, now in recovery from drug addiction. Galifianakis is measured and likeable as Riggan’s confidante. My only complaint about the script is that there isn’t time to develop some of the female roles further. Naomi Watts is very funny as the insecure actress making her Broadway debut, and Andrea Riseborough is excellent (again) in a too-small part (again) as Thomson’s lover. I wanted more of them, and Ryan as Riggan’s ex-wife, but this is not their story.
There is so much going on in Birdman, it’s easy to imagine it as an eight-episode mini-series on cable TV. That medium might allow time to flesh out the smaller roles and deepen some of the on-screen relationships. And a series about a male figure in crisis would hardly be a cable-TV first. It’s a 21st-century mantra now that what’s on TV is as good as, or better, than the movies. Birdman is a reminder that we can still be surprised and exalted by movies. That’s a high compliment, given the ‘golden age of television’ we’re now living through.
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