Birdman, or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,
directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu
(Fox Searchlight, 2014)

Birdman opens with an image of a flaming object falling from the sky, an evocation of the Icarus myth that serves as the story's theme: a grand project doomed to failure. There aren't a lot of surprises in the art vs. commerce plot, but it's all arranged in such mesmerizing, surrealistic ways that certain images from the film may remain with you for days afterward.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is an actor who was once famous for his role as Birdman, a superhero box-office draw who is now a has-been. His attempt to resuscitate his career with a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver's story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is not going well at all. His co-star, injured before opening night, is threatening him with a lawsuit. His replacement is a fantastic actor with a trainwreck personality who will steal with spotlight while destroying the production. His girlfriend is pregnant. His rehab-veteran daughter, working as his assistant, is backsliding badly.

This is a lot to carry for a man whose grip on life is already shaky. In the first view we have of Riggan, he's meditating while floating several feet off the floor, a jarring shot meant to throw the viewer's sense of reality into hyper, the way the film itself walks a fine line between delusion and magical realism. What's really happening to Riggan, and what's actually happening, may be two completely different things. He's in his underwear, utterly naked in front of us, and yet he's a mystery to himself.

Inarritu blurs the lines of reality through dazzling camera work that mimics a single tracking shot (accomplished with the help of a little technical magic) following the actors for two days through the bowels of the theater, the rooftops, the bar next door and the surrounding streets in a (seemingly) perfect take. Another element that creates the sense of seamless motion is the beat of the drummer who plays constantly throughout the film, a jazzy beat that speeds up or slows down as the action requires.

Birdman is a heady blend of absurdist comedy and serious drama that skewers ego and insecurity. And once you get past all that meta stuff, there's a tender and touching story in there about a man who falls victim to his fame and in the process takes a tour of nearly every single trapping of celebrity there is: loneliness, toxic relationships, addiction and bankruptcy, both fiscal and moral. The Buddhist touches are nice: in each major act of the film the scene either opens with, or has an anchoring shot of, a Buddhist symbol, Buddhism being a philosophy that demands the surrender of the ego as a precondition to leaving behind the damaging, soul-destroying world of illusion.

The central point is almost simplistic: theater is real, superhero movies are fake, and we all have a long shadow we are trying to escape. Some might dismiss the movie as too much precious navel-gazing, with too many winks from behind the curtain. But these little moments add up to a dazzling whole, covering up fairly well for the inability of Keaton to truly connect with the audience. His performance is fascinating but beyond the gravel-voiced narrator who lives in his head, a ghastly version of a shoulder-riding angel who occasionally pops out to egg him on to do something stupid or convince him that he is what he is not, we don't actually get much of a glimpse into who Riggan Thomson is as a person. We know him by his failures and mistakes, and by his regret, and we know that his ego has taken on a life of its own as an actual, fully costumed, full-of-himself superhero. But we don't really know the man. Even though it seems like we might have some insight into Riggan just from the way Keaton so brilliantly parallels/parodies his own real-time performance as Batman in a Kaufmanesque kind of way, Riggan still remains a bit of a mystery.

Riggan's fate is ultimately moot. Anyone can relate to Riggan's middle-aged fear and desperation that his finest days may be behind him and that the best he can ever do is not nearly enough. Birdman is a three-ring circus-and-magic show combination whose multi-layered story and cinematography is inspired, immersive and magnificent. Not just for superhero lovers.

review by
Mary Harvey

27 December 2014

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