Unlike quite anything else, Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s Birdman is a surrealist commentary on 21st century franchise culture, absolutely pumped full of energy, wit and scintillating satire. A massively relevant take on modernity, Iñárritu’s restless film comes dressed up as black comedy but resonates wholeheartedly with the slobbish zeitgeist du jour. Truth, it seems, can come masked in all sorts of outfits.
At an uncharted intersection of calculated pandemonium and technical marksmanship, Birdman is a product of carefully constructed chaos. Antonio Sanchez‘s jazzy drum score – a barely rhythmic cacophony of bass hits, popping snares and cymbal splashes – is a perfect example of the mysterious clockwork that is Birdman. Both are collections of seemingly disparate parts coming together in perfect harmony. Take, for instance, just how idyllically Iñárritu’s scenes flow into one another without interruption, often refurbishing rooms or leaping forward in time without missing a step. His shots are impossibly long, his planning improbably meticulous. Someone hand him (and editor Douglas Cris) an Oscar right now.
This chaos (that isn’t really chaos) all helps to add to Iñárritu’s brazenly original take on the crazed ethos of modern celebrity, the equally crazed 24-hour digital media pocket surrounding such and, relating this to the masses of us non-celebrities, the plight of modern mankind. As the universe distills down into an infinite spiral of Vines and BuzzFeeds, the idea of relevance (inside of or outside of the spotlight) dilutes down to a drop in the proverbial pond. A fact Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) has discovered.
Having been the face of the crowd-pleasing “Birdman” franchise – a tentpole superhero decked out with a suit and a growl, not unlike Batman – for three highly profitable films, Thomson has become a shrub. Too proud to return for a fourth film – though much in need of the mullah it would bring in – and perceived to be too mainstream to find any real success outside of the rubber suit, Thomson’s last stand is a stage production he’s helming all on his own. But he’s taken to Broadway like a sledgehammer to a watermelon.
One of the first scenes of the film shows a lighting fixture drop from the catwalk to crunch a less-than-talented co-star’s melon. Thomson soon after admits to producer and best friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis, who’s never been better) that he staged the lumière assassination in fear of the talentless co-star’s lackluster performance sinking the thespian ship in its entirety. His grief is nonexistence. What’s done is done. Hakuna Matata. There’s a method behind his madness, it just happens to be cloaked in, well, more madness.
Thomson frequently thrashes his green room like a Rolling Stone circa 1970 equipped with the power of a Sith Lord. He’s an emotional baby. A raging id. A deadbeat millionaire has-been struggling to strike a balance between life and theater; his image and his true self. He’s even got a little bird on his shoulder chatting with him in a gruff drawl. Thomson is like Sanchez’s itchy drumbeats, sporadically popping off cymbal crashes and rim shots. He’s unpredictable. He has a tick like a drug addict, the shattered confidence of a teenager with acne. “The world’s a stage” has never been so anxiety-inducing and, eventually, death-defying.
It’s no coincidence that Keaton plays an actor attempting to rise from the grave. Who better to represent the privileged diaspora of celebrities ejected from the spotlight than Michael Keaton?, who himself has undergone a Birdmanic transformation from hot ticket item to bargain bin leftover. His career has been awash with huge successes and hermit-like absences from the lime light. Unlike his filmic counterpart, Keaton famously didn’t get a third crack at the Caped Crusader. You can call this his comeback.
Birdman is astonishingly biographical – like it was written with only Keaton in mind. The parallels to Keaton’s own mortal coil give an added poignancy to his monstrous performance as a deadbeat dad/has been, adding real life fuel to this intrinsically artistic fire. Keaton’s a rocketship, blasting into an orbit we never suspected him possible of. His performance is so good, he deserves a cape.
But unlike the titular character of his film, Iñárritu’s opinion on the subject of superhero dominance is not masked – he recently referred to the proliferation of the supers as a “cultural genocide” – though he never assumes to lick his way to the center of your artistic worldview. His Birdman is so decorated with deceiving metaphors and thick sarcasm that some may even interpret it as a celebration of all things “super”. They would, however, be tragically mistaken.
A once trend that has grown and contorted into a full blown cultural monolith, the “Marvelization” of cinema has sharpened the blades of Hollywood’s ever-turning cogs. The actors becomes the celebrity, the celebrity becomes the action figure. The alter-ego disappears behind the increasingly unattainable Übermensch. The time-checked “You’ve made it kid” has all but devolved into an extended edition of 15 minutes of fame. Case and point, Toby McWho.
Time Square tourists don’t holler “Riggan Thomson” at our passing protagonist. They yell out, “Birdman!” Washed up and spit out, the return to normality is a bitch slap of a reality check. Future artistic endeavors are stained by monumental past successes. The critics have already prepared the loogies to hock, they wait in the wings for the artist to present themselves for a public spanking. Riggan’s last crack at certifiable art won’t be a handout so much a passion project he’d have to to write, direct and star in himself. When you’re that commited, you kind of have to drop lights on the actors dragging you down with them.
In Birdman, Edward Norton‘s Mike Shiner steps up to fill in for the lantern-assaulted actor. He’s doing it as a favor to cast member and girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts) and from the get-go, he owns his character like Rupert Murdoch owns Fox. With an iron grip. As a magnet for critical praise, Shiner is the salvation of Thomson’s resurrection act. Until he turns into the crucifying nail. Norton’s work in the role is as unbecoming and ironic as it is ablaze with fervency and life. He rages like a Robert Frost poem. He can experience live through “the stage.” His sarcastically overzealous commitment to character is a stab wound in the side of all self-aggrandizing actors. With the faint flip of his eyes, he becomes a mockery of method acting. It’s, in a word, priceless.
Speaking of Oscar buzzworthy, Emma Stone – as Riggan’s ex-junkie daughter – is radiant in a subdued, postpartum kind of way. Her performance is tactful and flowing with heartache and angst beyond her meager years but earmarked with a nuanced hopefulness that’s hard to exactly pin down. As far as the feminine potential for a nomination, it’s Stone’s name that ought to rise to the top, like perfectly cooked gnocchi. Or cream. As she’s responsible for our fleeting moments with Birdman, the entire end of the film rests on her shoulders. She is truly the dollop of cream on top.
After all, life is a drum solo. A syncopated mess of events made cogent by physical continuity. It crescendos before it diminuendos. It accelerates and then ritards. Birdman is a drum solo. Its movements, fresh and unpredictable. It’s cryptic and brilliant; an unblinking, uncut, uninterrupted celebration of all things art – and what may come to pass as art. It engages pop culture in the same sentence that it dismisses it, telling stories of jettisoned success and mainstream madness in the same breathe. Iñárritu sticks his hand inside the cultural pocket of modern art and makes it dance like his puppet.
Steeped in an exacting degree of irreverent relevance, he’s able to pull off the rare feat of raising existential questions in the same scene that he blows up a cityscape. It’s like seeing Black Swan and A Beautiful Mind fist-fighting in a Charlie Kaufman play; a crossroads of cinema and theater that’s entirely novel and entirely brilliant. Birdman probes both the death of and subsequent resurrection of art in the age of the superhero with a brand of ironic wit and industrial precision that don’t often coincide, and even less often coalesce into one film. It’s an achievement unlike any other. See it immediately.