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Non-Review Review: Birdman (or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman is a staggeringly cynical piece of work.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s showbusiness satire has its knives out from the opening sequence, and never puts them away. It is a movie that is relentlessly snarky and bitter about just about any facet of the artistic process. The movie seldom pulls its punches, lawing into its targets with a vengeance. There are points where it almost seems too much, where it feels like Iñárritu might be better served to pull back or ease off for a moment as the film becomes just a little bit too much.

Showtime!

Showtime!

Then again, Iñárritu turns the film’s relentlessness into a visual motif, structuring Birdman as one long unbroken take. This structure is only slightly disingenuous. While there are any number of “cheats” that allow Birdman to stitch together multiple takes, the end result is still a hugely ambitious and impressive piece of work. Even viewers as cynical as the film itself may find themselves marvelling at some of the incredibly fluid transitions and extended sequences. Birdman‘s anger might occasionally come close to suffocating, but its energy is infectious.

That is to say nothing of the performance at the centre of the film, with Michael Keaton playing a washed-up has-been celebrity desperately (and pathetically) fighting for artistic credibility after a career spent in blockbuster cinema. One of the more interesting aspects of Birdman is that it seems just as dismissive of the attempts at artistic rehabilitation as it does of the original “sell out” work. Birdman is a wry, clever and vicious piece of work. It is also a phenomenal accomplishment.

You wouldn't like him when he's angry...

You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry…

Birdman is a movie consciously and cheekily aware of its own hyperreality. Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a once-promising actor who sold his soul to star in the lucrative “Birdman” superhero franchise. The movie is less than subtle in suggesting that Keaton might empathise with his character. Most pointedly, his daughter remarks that Thomson had managed to hold on to some of his artistic credibility “before the third comic book movie”, perhaps vindicating Keaton’s decision to depart after only one sequel.

There is no small irony in the fact that Thomson’s daughter – the one giving him this advice – is played by Emma Stone. Stone herself wrapped up her involvement in The Amazing Spider-Man film franchise after only one sequel as well. So it appears – barring future cameos – both Keaton and Stone can hold their heads high, at least by the standards of the film around them. There is an irony in the fact that Thomson’s younger and artistically credible co-star Mike is played by Ed Norton, who departed the Marvel Cinematic Universe after only one starring turn.

Fallen idol...

Fallen idol…

Lesley is uncertain about the particulars of how Mike left his last job. “He quit, or got fired,” she tells Thomson. “With Mike, it’s usually both.” It seems like a nod towards Norton’s occasional reputation as a performer who is difficult to work with. Certainly, he tries to hijack Thomson’s attempted comeback – perhaps itself a nod to some of the creative disagreements in Norton’s own past, whether it is re-writing The Incredible Hulk or editing the final cut of American History X while the director was locked outside.

Birdman blurs the line between reality and fantasy for the audience as much as for its central characters. The cast seem almost aware of their fictionality. Naomi Watts ends up in a sequence that evokes Mulhulland Drive. Playing Thomson’s oldest friend, Jake, Zach Galifianakis seems concerned that nobody is taking this seriously. “This is about being respected and validated,” Jake advises Thomson. “That’s what you told me. That’s how you got me into this sh!t.” It seems like Birdman spends a considerable amount of time winking at the audience.

Soaring...

Soaring…

Birdman might seem vindictive if it weren’t quite so self-aware. Watching an interview with Robert Downey Jr. on the television in his dressing room, Thomson lets his own Christian Bale internal monologue out. “That clown doesn’t have half our talent,” Thomson’s ego assures him. He seems bitter that he has never been recognised for his contribution to the shape of modern cinema – much like Keaton himself is often overlooked. “We handed those posers the keys to the kingdom.”

Birdman is hyper-reflexive, its own commentaries on fame applying both to the work of cast members outside the project and to the work of the characters inside the film. Later on, Thomson reflects the difficulties facing his own attempts to get a stage production off the ground. “This play is starting to feel like a miniature, deformed version of myself,” he confesses to his ex-wife in a rare moment of introspection. Given how close Birdman seems to hew to the external narratives of its subjects, this is not an unfair assessment.

Lighten up...

Lighten up…

The opening shot features Thomson in his underwear; the climax features a similar public humiliation. Perhaps this is a pointed nod towards what the film perceives as the humiliation of playing a superhero? (After all, we all know the “underwear on the outside” joke.) Mike describes these blockbusters as a “cultural genocide”, sentiments that Iñárritu himself has echoed outside the film. One critic lays into Thomson for his participation in a vacuous culture – for being part of a clique that “measure [their] own worth in weekends.”

In one of the movie’s shrewder gags, Thomson tries to re-cast a role, only to find his choices are all tied up in superhero films. Michael Fassbender is working on X-Men: Days of Future Past. What about Jeremy Renner? “He’s an Avenger.” Of course, the irony of all this is that Thomson would probably have difficulty securing an actor like that at short notice anyway. It seems unlikely that too many Best Actor nominees would have schedules free enough to join a Broadway play the night before the first show.

"You wanna get nuts? Let's get nuts!"

“You wanna get nuts? Let’s get nuts!”

However, this all low-hanging fruit. Birdman subverts a lot of the expectations from a story like this by refusing to confine its cynicism to a particular target. Sure, big budget blockbusters come under a lot of fire from characters inside the narrative, but Birdman has fairly scathing things to say about other – traditionally more credible – artistic institutions. As much as Birdman might pile on the humiliation for Thomson, most is focused around his own desperate attempts to find legitimacy, more than scoffing at the work he did years earlier.

After all, neither of the major characters who attack Thomson are portrayed in a flattering light. Mike is almost a stereotypical take on the credible stage actor. He is a liar, a manipulator, a cheat. He attempts to rape an actress on stage, acts in an unprofessional manner, and seeks to undermine Thomson at every turn. Mike is just as obsessed with his own image and reputation as Thomson is. Indeed, it is suggested that Mike costs in the New York Theatre scene based on his relationship with the New York Times theatre critic rather than any merit.

Naked truth...

Naked truth…

Similarly, the critics who threaten to lay into Thomson are portrayed in a less-than-flattering light. Lindsay Duncan plays perhaps the most stereotypically nasty critic seen on screen since Anton Ego. “I’m going to destroy your play,” the New York Times theatre critic boasts to Thomson, before she has even seen a single act or preview. She is trying to protect her own fiefdom and her own sense of legitimacy. Indeed, she may be making her own desparate bid for legitimacy. “Forget about the Times,” Thomson’s inner monologue advises him. “Everybody else has.”

Birdman fires in absolutely every direction, with a raw energy and a piercing anger. These portrayals could easily seem shallow or superficial – a collection of generic clichés about certain types of showbusiness people – but the work is elevated both by a superb ensemble and by the sheer momentum of the film. Birdman moves forward with a tremendous sense of pace and purpose. The decision to minimise the number of takes helps to ground the movie in Thomson’s own slipping sanity. The audience is as trapped in that New York theatre as he is.

Birds of a feather...

Birds of a feather…

The cast is wonderful, made up of a wealth of great performances. Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis and Amy Ryan all do stellar work, elevating their characters and helping to create a world that feels multifaceted and inhabited. As much as Birdman is the story of an individual losing his already slack grip on reality, the people around him all feel well-developed and fully formed. Birdman features one of the best ensembles of the year.

However, it is Michael Keaton who anchors the film. He manages the comebackto which Thomson spends most of the film aspiring. Birdman is a reminder of Keaton’s range and versitility. As much as Thomson finds himself mocked for his work in gaudy superhero fantasy films, Birdman clever capitalises on the strengths that Keaton demonstrated in those high-profile movies. It takes a performer with the manic energy that Keaton brought to Beetlejuice to keep up with Birdman, and the dazed insecurity that Keaton brought to Bruce Wayne helps centre Thomson.

Everything just clicks...

Everything just clicks…

Birdman manages to remain both critical and sympathetic towards Riggan Thomson. As Thomson tries to claw back his lost status, suffering humiliation heaped upon humiliation, Birdman never entirely turns against him – even as it never quite supports him either. While the film allows Thomson to land some of the strongest rhetorical points about modern celebrity culture and the way that the system works, it refuses to take his argument entirely at face value, inviting the audience to reach their own conclusions about the character.

The movie is ambiguous as to whether Thomson’s attempts to earn respect and credibility are any more legitimate than the current desire to “go viral” or the other contemporary facets of the obsession with fifteen minutes of fame. Indeed, one of the movie’s shrewder gags turns the soliquey from Macbeth into an awkward late-night audition piece, as Thomson considers his own place in the world. These insecurities and uncertainties are not new. These questions about artistic credibility have existed for centuries. This is but one expression of them.

Opening night fight...

Opening night fight…

Birdman isa bold and beautiful piece of work. It might occasionally seem a bit too glib or bitter for its own good, but it bristles with an energy that carries it across any of these potential hurdles. Featuring a stellar cast and beautiful direction, Birdman is well worth a look.

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