Dark, satirical 'Birdman' soars

Fox Searchlight

By Catherine Sulpizio, Daily Arts Writer
Published November 2, 2014

The camera in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence)” never stops moving, even to pause on the actors, who, too, are restless. They glide between stage and dressing room at such dizzying speed that it’s no wonder the line between fiction and reality eventually collapses. At the center of the cinematic vortex is Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton, “Beetlejuice”), a washed up star whose better days are haunting him, literally, in the form of his bombastic superhero alter-ego cum Freudian super-ego, Birdman.


Michigan Theatre
Fox Searchlight

The cinematic tour de force is generated by Emmanuel Lubezki’s (“Gravity”) exquisite camerawork, which hovers and breathes like an extra character. Its cleverness intrudes a few times, but for the most part it adds integral dimension to an already multilayered story. “Birdman” attempts to create a single-take shot (it’s subtly threaded together) and is mostly confined to the St. James theater in New York, creating a claustrophobic, distinctly play-like atmosphere: the actors give monologues dressed up as aired grievances, the lighting bleeds from ethereal blue to angry red, the minimalist soundtrack releases a pit-pat of drums and orchestra at opportune moments, mostly drawing taut silence. There is a gun that obeys Chekov’s Rule.

After all, it’s a self-aware film, equal parts industry-skewering satire and meta-drama. “Birdman” follows Thomson as he attempts to claim some artistic prestige by adapting, directing and starring in Raymond Carver’s “What They Talk About When They Talk About Love,” in the recent tradition of Hollywood stars storming the Broadway stage. Much of the movie’s momentum is driven by Carver’s short story, a tale about the delusional acts people equate with love and the hazy line between requited love and self-identity. Indeed, the cast of the play is less a unified system than a frenetic throng of individual motivations and egos, concerned more with good reviews than Raymond’s compact dialogue. Such is the self-serving nature of all creative projects, and “Birdman” offers a psychological portrait of the objet d’art.

In the days before opening, Thomson attempts to fight off his Hollywood past — replete with CGI and thunderous explosions, as well as the looming reception of the play, on which his career and financial stability rest. That would be too manageable, though, so his ex-wife, maybe pregnant girlfriend, uncooperative lead actor and recently rehab-released daughter get crammed in, in the claustrophobic, metaphoric way only stage plays can pull off (though “Birdman” is the immediate cinematic exception).

And for all its density, in the two times I saw it, I was astonished by the meticulous way it barrels through and around itself like a Lynchian ouroboros — doubling abounds in the film, on stage, backstage, with dialogue and characterization. In one scene an actor asks Thomson what he thinks of his overblown monologue, and in the tail end of the movie a homeless person recites the famous sound and fury “Macbeth” monologue before asking Thomson for the same feedback word for word.

Combined with the telekinetic powers Thomson may or may not have, as well as a detour into slick action genre, makes the viewing a marvelous puzzle. Notably, though, its formalist delights are also fortified with compelling performances. Michael Keaton’s rendition as a nervous-wrecked actor is astounding — watch his eyes through the film which mirror the camera’s feverish gaze. Incredibly entertaining is Edward Norton (“Fight Club”), who plays the recalcitrant actor with the kind of emasculated hyper-masculinity of his former imaginary friend Tyler Durden. Indeed other actors’ characters echo old roles too: Naomi Watts’ (“21 Grams”) Broadway neophyte Lesley is a slightly grittier version of her Betty from “Mulholland Drive.” Zach Galifianakis as the exasperated best friend/lawyer reminds the viewer he has serious acting chops.

The least successful acting is done by Emma Stone (“The Help”), whose character, Sam, intentionally or unintentionally falls prey to the fragile, damaged ingénue trope, which is simply dull. Another character, New York Times theater critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan, “Rome”) is more satirical than dynamic, but Duncan’s barbed commitment makes up for it.
Along those lines, despite — or rather, because of — its dark subject matter, “Birdman” is raked with fantastic, vicious humor. Up until the syncopated closing credits, “Birdman” refuses to stay its furious pace. The movie is a dizzying force of sharp writing and even sharper cinematography and acting.