The self-importance of being Birdman

Mexican misery master Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new film is tonally lighter, technically dazzling & beautifully acted. But it’s still a pissy tantrum that deals in absolutes.


Michael Keaton (right) in Birdman

There’s a scene late in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman where washed-up actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) drunkenly confronts a theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan), who in turn reveals that she has plans to turn in a savage review of his yet-to-open play because she despises what he stands for as an actor best known for a superhero franchise. Thomson stumbles out into the street to buy a pint of whiskey and comes upon a wino shouting a soliloquy from Macbeth — you know the one. It’s the one that goes, “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” — the one that nearly every critic has attempted to recreate in an incendiary review since, only to revert to quoting. It’s just about the most famous put-down in the English language, yet its placement in the film doesn’t have quite the intended impact. Iñárritu is not an idiot and Birdman certainly doesn’t signify nothing — but sound and fury just about covers it.

Iñárritu’s never been a subtle filmmaker, drawn to broad strokes and building drama out of blocks of misery. His early films appealed to me more as a teenager, unable to understand a life that wasn’t mine as anything but powerful jolts of darkness or light (mostly darkness, in this case). Inarritu hit a real nadir with Biutiful a few years ago, delivering an unbelievably dour and oppressive drama that mistook its almost pornographic obsession with tragedy for thematic relevance. On its surface, Birdman appears to be a comedy, or at least as close to a comedy as Iñárritu could muster — it’s filled with actors best known for comedy and its premise is not about illegal immigration, tragic car accidents or cancer. Yet Birdman is about as hopeful as any of Inarritu’s other films, though it’s technically twice as dazzling.

Riggan Thomson’s career is in the shitter. Best known for portraying the superhero Birdman in the early ’90s, he’s never quite been able to replicate that success in the following years. Divorced from his wife (Amy Ryan) and barely keeping a relationship with his recovering addict daughter/assistant (Emma Stone), he launches full-force into a self-financed Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love alongside the egotistical Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), the self-conscious Lesley (Naomi Watts) and his much-younger lover (Andrea Riseborough). As the calamities pile up and tensions are drawn before the official opening of the play, Thomson begins to unravel, much to the dismay of his stage manager (Zach Galifianakis) and of the Birdman persona that sometimes follows him around and reflects his worst instincts back at him.

Iñárritu’s decision to frame the film as one unbroken shot (though the film is not in real time and the shots used to disguise the cuts are anything but subtle) and to score the film almost entirely through an endless drum solo by a sometimes-glimpsed drummer gives Birdman all the nerve and propulsion it needs… and yet, it’s also a film where everyone runs around yelling about Art (with a capital A) and punching each other and breaking things in the name of preserving the sanctity of art. Iñárritu wants so transparently to make you to understand that he’s an artist making art (his repudiation of superhero movies is particularly blatant — certainly he might have had a lot to talk about with Norton, who was apparently notoriously difficult on the set of The Incredible Hulk) that it becomes impossibly grating even when the film is often exhilarating.

A lot of that exhilaration comes thanks to the cast and especially to Keaton, who appears in the lead of a major motion picture for the first time in 10 years (even more than that if you don’t consider White Noise major). Keaton is in nearly every frame of the movie — not surprising since he basically is Thomson — and he’s edgy, funny, scary and vulnerable all at once, the perfect distillation of his on-screen persona. It’s easy to see why the script attracted so much talent: everyone wants to think that what they’re working on is worthy, but it’s as if Iñárritu turned to the cast and said, “We’re making art now!,” then turned back to the audience and repeated the same thing. Just yelling your intentions does not automatically produce the desired result.

I have a natural aversion to films that present criticism as inherently toxic and villainous — not just because I often see them from the very position of being the villain, but also because they often feel like petty schoolyard taunting. In that sense, Birdman seems designed as a direct response to Iñárritu’s critics, too self-centred and bullying to appreciate the real art of self-importance and tragedy. In Biutiful, horrible things happened to innocents because that’s the harsh reality of life as understood by Iñárritu. In Birdman, horrible things happen to innocent artists because they dare to put beauty into the world only to be summarily shit on. If the oppressive cloud of misery didn’t work for dead migrant workers, how could it possibly work for a guy who just wants to put on a play? ■

Birdman opens in theatres today, Friday, Oct. 31

See the trailer here.