Birdman (2014)


Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Writer: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alexander Dinelaris, Nicolás Giacobone, Armando Bo

There’s a lot to dislike about Birdman, but somehow it’s likeable despite all of that. The characters are egotistic maniacs, swerving around from one calamity to the next, but perhaps that’s one or maybe two reasons why it works. This is the very nature of putting on a theatrical production, which is what the film is ostensibly about, and day to day life, which is also what the film is about, if you’re a fading movie star who’s trying to break into Broadway, at least. The film is bound to garner interest from the Hollywood players and their New York Broadway counterparts as there’s nothing more that they love than talking about themselves, and again, this is what is laid out bare in the film. It doesn’t balk from that. It relishes in it, and all of the small quirks and foibles, as well as quite a few major ones, in the business. It almost has an in-built “get out of jail free card” factor to deflect any criticism by voicing it itself through the characters, in their resentment of critical reviewers, making anyone who denounces is sound like they missed the point, but it can still be picked apart in its constituent pieces and examined at arm’s length, and ought to be.

Let’s look at the visuals. They were fantastic, with rolling dolly shots wheeling around the performers, seamlessly and painstakingly edited together to create a flowing torrent of visceral emotion. The special effects didn’t impose themselves either, except where intended, and enhanced the blurring between reality and what was in the protagonist’s mind succinctly.

The protagonist is Riggan Thomson, played by a bewrinkled and balding Michael Keaton, whose better days are behind him, but always following him around, like the imaginary figure of the Birdman who is a clear parody of the Batman that Keaton deftly played in the ’90s. Only the bat, that figure of the dark, unknown psyche, is transferred into the day, bringing the inner thoughts out into the light. There are a lot of metaphorical, literary and philosophical references like that in the film. It’s very post modern and self-reflexive, with elements of Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, Jorge Luis Borges’s magic realism, Shakespeare’s plays within plays, Brecht’s alienation, and other theatry devices such as these to detach the viewer from the spectacle in front of them.

Ed Norton’s character, Mike Sheener, is obsessed with his performance being as real as possible, a knowing reflection of Norton’s own reputation, and he goes to untoward lengths to give it that absolute verisimilitude. He is an obnoxious arse, but everything he says and does eventually turns out to be infallibly true. There seems to be a lot of nod nods and wink winks contained in the script, but it doesn’t totally overwhelm the proceedings, making it a completely obnoxious incestuous actor love fest, although it does often come close, perhaps veering over the line a couple of times, which seems to be why some people are left a little cold by it. That said, it’s probably supposed to, but perhaps it could’ve had a bit less of the knowing nudge nudge business for its own self-referential sake and a few more characters who weren’t abysmal narcissists, but that’s the subject of the film, so why not? Riggan’s long-suffering wife (Amy Ryan), disaffected daughter (Emma Stone), neglected mistress (Andrea Riseborough), insecure co-actress (Naomi Watts)  and theatrical mentor (Zach Galifianakis) have a lot to deal with.

The dressing gown scene was very funny, but also symbolic of the plight of Riggan Thomson’s himself. In a similar way to the film Mephisto, he is left open to the elements and when exposed is seen and recorded by hordes of intrigued onlookers in Time Square, much like the whole celebrity media circus itself encapsulated in luscious, swimming visuals.

There are hints of mental illness and psychological instability scratching away at the surface here, delicately and subtly portrayed by Keaton and the supporting cast that would be deserving of its much-talked-about Oscar.

The cool, offbeat jazz drumming of Antonio Sanchez underscores the film perfectly, giving it that jilted jazz vibe throughout (possibly a reference to Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker?). The film reeks of New York in all its grotesque glory, and in a way is an ode to what the city has to offer – the fleeting, flighty charms of fame, and the gritty earth of reality. As the asteroid of Riggan’s career plummets to Earth, he becomes reborn like a phoenix, and finds some kind of solace in his more humble recognition that the play isn’t always the thing. The are many funny moments too, so a recommended watch for those who are after something that isn’t the usual Hollywood fodder.


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