THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film is a story steeped in theatre-land cliches. From the affair between actors behind the scenes resulting in a pregnancy scare, to the self-deprecation of an intimidated leading lady, Birdman delights in playing with the stereotypes of stage acting. Edward Norton plays a grandiose thespian who, despite his brooding over the great mysteries of life and acting, spends most of his time fooling around with attractive women in an attempt to distract himself from his sexual inadequacy. Lindsay Duncan is the stone-cold bitch critic, snobbish to the max and baying for blood. And at the center of it all stands Michael Keaton, the struggling actor past his prime, desperate to make some sort of impression on Broadway and thereby save himself and his career. “I’ve put everything into this!” he screams at his play’s producer repeatedly (played by a poker-faced Zack Galifianakis), although we never see him seriously struggle in any way, other than in the fight against his own subconscious.
Predictability pervades the film, as at one point, Mike Shiner (Norton) points out to Riggan Thomson (Keaton) that the red safety plug shoved down the barrel of a gun used in a scene towards the end of the film’s play (a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love) is distracting him from his acting. From here it’s easy to guess that some sort of drama will ensue involving an actual gun, and an actual shot. Sure enough, Thomson later attempts suicide on stage mid-scene.
So how does Birdman manage to soar, when its flight path appears so formulaic? Perhaps the answer lies in its cinematography. Emmanuel Lubezki’s long tracking shots replicate the high stakes of theatre, where the actors have no choice but to be alert at every moment, waiting in rooms or on roofs for the arrival of the camera crew, aware that if they fluff their lines it’s right back to the beginning for everyone, not just them. The audience feels this tension, as lines are delivered with a dynamism that permeates the screen. Emma Stone as Thomson’s daughter Sam, in particular, possesses a brilliant nervous energy, and Michael Keaton’s outbursts of manic violence where he smashes everything in his dressing room, are captivatingly frenzied. Each scene buzzes with a turbulence that contradicts its careful set-up (actors would have surely had to be blocked perfectly to avoid collisions). Precision buts heads with chaos, and this is Iñárritu and Lubezki’s great achievement.
At the heart of Birdman is acting and all of its hypocrisies. Thomson gained his fame from playing the role of a superhero in a film franchise, and this success both enables him to continue acting, and haunts him as a reminder of his “selling out”. “You are not an actor, you are a celebrity” sneers critic Tabitha (Duncan) as she reviles Hollywood stars for their apparent thirst for fame. And yet Mike Shiner, the golden boy of theatre who purports to care only for the soul of whichever play he stars in, is visibly jealous of Thomson’s popularity. The winged figure of the title, ominous yet laughable, stalks Keaton’s character, willing him to return to the bombastic world of explosions and car-chases that characterised his blockbuster work. In the end, it is, strangely, Thomson’s moments of surrender to this fantasy world which lend Birdman a quizzical depth that it would lack otherwise.
This to-ing and fro-ing between somberness and silliness is nothing new, but the film does it so frenetically (helped massively by the offbeat, jazzy soundtrack by Antonio Sánchez) that you can’t help but admire its bravado. The irony of having Michael Keaton play the part of an actor abased by his past career choices is an obvious talking point, and endless references to real-world actors currently starring in Marvel movies are part of a running joke that you can either take at face value, or use as a starting point for discussions about entertainment and notoriety. In the end, echoing the poem that opens the film, Thomson finally feels himself beloved by all. After shooting his own nose off (which is replaced with a new one, suspiciously beaky), his play receives a stellar review from Tabitha. Wife and daughter forgive his endless narcissism, and the public send flowers to his hospital room adoringly. In a moment of apparent victory, the Birdman is told to shut up and is left defeated in the corner of a bathroom. But is this praise any different from the sort he received from his superhero films? Apparently not, as despite his critical acclaim, Thomson still feels a lack, still desires the thrill of the flight. The film ends with him jumping (or soaring) out of a window, perpetuating the yearn for fulfillment that is the lifeblood of the story. As Sam looks on in wonderment, the audience is left to ponder whether this actor, this man, will ever get what he wanted from his life, even so.
FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★