Thursday 18 December 2014

Film Review: Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virture of Ignorance) (Iñárritu, 2014)

A skittering, jittery jazz beat propels Birdman, the latest film by Alejandro González Iñárritu, which opens in London on Boxing Day, and around the rest of the UK on 1st January, to considerable anticipation. It’s a sound that might put the viewer in mind of another highly acclaimed American film that’s due out here soon, Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, a jazz-focused melodrama that appears to be delighting viewers all over the place, but that struck me as one of the foulest films to be screened in this year’s London Film Festival.  (You can read my thoughts on it here.)
Actually, Birdman and Whiplash have a few things in common besides jazz on their soundtracks.  Both are pushy, assertive films addressing male creativity, male ego, male brawling, male meltdown. But where Chazelle’s movie is a gruesomely masochistic work that has some truly reprehensible things to say about effective teaching and mentorship, Iñárritu’s latest – though not without its problems – boasts enough grace notes and stylistic interest to make it a much more rewarding experience.     

The film’s focus is the theatre, and the efforts of an actor, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), to stage a play that he’s written based on Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” in New York.  The star of the comic-book superhero franchise Birdman, Riggan has been down on his luck since that series ran its course, and is desperately hoping for a break with this new venture.
But, in the run up to press night, he finds himself plagued by problems. Firstly, there’s the sudden indisposition of a co-star which results in the impromptu hiring of the volatile Method man Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), lover of the highly-strung actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) who’s also in the production. There are his uneasy relationships with his own girlfriend Laura (Angela Riseborough) who – yup – is also in the production, and his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab and now serving as his assistant on the show. Plus, there are Riggan’s doubts about his own abilities, manifested by the growling utterances of his superhero alter-ego.   

Since Broadway's influence on Hollywood movies has been waning for years, the novelty value of the theatre setting is part of what gives Birdman its elements of interest and appeal. The movie’s closest contemporary peers are Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008) and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), highly stylised films that also offer increasingly surreal spins on the work/life balance of writers and performers.
That’s not to say that Birdman - or Birdman, or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) to give the film its full moniker - shows a great deal of insight or affection for anything in the world that it presents. There’s a strong element of fakery to the backstage scenes even before the more overtly fanciful elements (such as a startling blockbuster movie sequence) kick in. And between the neurotic, hubristic actors, stupid autograph-seekers and social media addicts and malicious critics on display (the latter represented by Lindsay Duncan’s Tabitha Dickinson, who faces off with Riggan in a bar, ludicrously announcing “I’m gonna destroy your play,” and whose awfulness seems linked, in the film’s scheme, to both her age and her gender) at times this is a movie that seems intent on turning everything to crud.

I found myself recoiling from Birdman in those initial stages. But every time I felt like giving up on the movie I’d find myself seduced by some interesting observation of arresting image. For one, the film's perspective is much more flexible and open than that of Whiplash, with Riggan’s high-falutin’ claims for his artistic endeavours and disdain for Facebook and Twitter set against the point-of-view of the social media-conscious Sam, who challenges the "relevance" of putting on a play for a bunch of rich white people who are probably more concerned about where they’ll eat afterwards.

The movie plays off of its actors' histories and personas (especially Keaton and Norton’s) with some dexterity, and Keaton’s performance is simply terrific.  But where the film really scores is in its stylistic bravura. Iñárritu's conceit is to make the movie appear to be constructed in one single shot. And with clever time lapses and the camera variously swooping, swirling, alighting and pursuing,  damned if he and the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki don’t convince you that that’s the case, achieving some awesome transitions between interior and exterior spaces. 

A centrepiece sequence sees Riggan locked out of the theatre during an interval and making his way, dressed only in his underpants, through the Times Square throng and back in through the front doors of the venue. Formally, the movie is a blast, and the showy style helps hold the viewer through some of the more questionable moments, which can be both crude (Mike’s attempt to initiate on-stage sex with Lesley) and schmaltzy (at its core the movie is all about a neglectful father eventually admitting to his daughter “I shoulda been there for you”).
There’s plenty to take issue with in Birdman, then. But there’s no denying that this movie - by turns brave and foolish, exciting and irritating - sometimes soars.   


  1. Agreed on your many insights here, especially the innovative camerawork throughout the film. And I was especially pleased to see that Edward Norton's booty has held up rather well since American History X.

  2. Yes, mixed feelings about the movie overall, but the style is very exciting. Mr. Norton's holding up well, indeed. :)