Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu‘s ambitious, existential, stream-of-consciousness, comedy/farce BIRDMAN is an audacious gamble and a grand stage for actors, particularly for those who have never had a chance to show their serious chops on the big screen. (Any big actor who has fallen from grace should be ringing Inarritu’s agent this weekend for his next film.)
First and foremost among these is Michael Keaton. He plays Riggan Thomson, a movie actor who walked away from a successful superhero franchise entitled “Birdman” (any similarities between this film and the “Batman” character that Keaton assayed in the ’90s is purely coincidental. Purely.). In a full-throttle performance Keaton upends most of what we’ve ever thought of him and his toolkit as an actor. He doesn’t appear to be baring his soul, he appears to be working his ass off, using an arsenal of intellect and empathy to create a character from whole cloth. Where we’ve formerly seen humorous, improvisational riffing we can now see deep understanding, where we once saw responses to a situation we now see a man in character, where we once saw a jester, we now see a king.
But there is a wealth of opportunity in Inarritu‘s innovative, collaborative screenplay. A rich, funny take on the desperately hard act of creating art, a critique on current societal norms and our possibly bankrupt culture, and a fascinating character study, credit is shared with three others: Nicolas Giacobone (who co-wrote Inarritu’s last film, the searingly painful, beautiful BIUTIFUL), Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo, who also co-wrote BIUTIFUL). It must be noted that, were this a true super-hero film, the presence of more than two writers would likely be mocked.
Keaton’s Riggan is trying to mount a Broadway stage production of Raymond Carver‘s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” that he himself adapted, is directing and is starring in. When we meet Riggan the rehearsals are going so badly that he arranges for a stage light to fall on one of his actor’s heads to get the hack off the stage. But that’s just one of Riggan’s many problems. He may have impregnated his co-star, he’s in debt, he’s fighting addiction, and, worst of all, battling against the super-ego voice in his head that sounds a lot like the gravely voice of Birdman. And, in a classic example of sticking with “the devil you know,” his injured actor’s replacement, is the trained stage actor Mike, played with playful energy by the phenomenal Edward Norton. Mike both disrupts and improves the preview performances but has no respect whatsoever for Riggan, which, really, is what the former movie star craves most of all.
In the press conference for the film Inarritu stated that the inspiration for this entire enterprise was Phillipe Petit, the performance artist who walked a tightrope from one World Trade Center building to the other, documented in the film MAN ON WIRE. That can be seen in nearly every frame. Numerous scenes are gasp-inducingly long takes, with tracking shots in tight corridors that seem impossible, while these tightrope walkers are turning in the performances of their lives. Inarritu breaks this style up with short, shocking, visionary moments of Riggan imagining he truly has super-powers, that he sees a Wormwood like destruction of the world while his own personal Birdman flies behind his shoulder filling him the worst advice possible. You can almost see the pole bending and Inarritu steadying himself and his cast and crew several times in the film.
Also allowed to show a grittier and less oafish side, in a small but critical role, is
Zach Galifanakis, who plays Riggan’s producer. Galifanakis is comic relief but in a way that he’s never been before. He’s not aping another, nor swishing his way across the screen. He’s a scared, lifelong friend of Riggan’s whose career is on the line.
BIRDMAN is indeed a tight-wire act between the towers of creativity and acting and the film ends up on the other side with both hands high in the air in triumph.