It’s a misconception that true life imitates art. Smartass critics have tried to compare Michael Keaton’s Batman career as a mirror of Birdmanand a genius sleight of hand by Iñárritu. Before we get carried away by this faux parallel of a has-been celebrity trying to rediscover his mojo with a seemingly doomed Broadway production of a Raymond Carver short story (talk about the ridiculous to the sublime), we must remember that Keaton has a track history of note. Beetlejuice, Pacific Heights, Jackie Brown, Out of Sightand, of course the two Batman movies. Latterly his star has waned a trifle, but to compare him to Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is unfair.
Birdmanis a disturbing film. It’s a roller coaster of a ride, the kind that leaves one’s heart in one’s mouth trying to guess what on earth will happen next, that sick feeling of discomfort, exacerbated by Riggan’s real or imagined ability to move objects, to levitate and, indeed, even to fly. The innovative construct of seemingly shooting in a single take – it is a skilful deception – leads us down the dingy corridors of the theatre, through darkened alleys and lays bare the souls of the actors, none of whom it is easy to empathise with.
Riggan is tormented by his inner voice – ‘we all have one’ – exhorting him to abandon his attempt at high art; after all he is THE Birdman and it made him millions; why change tack at this stage in his career? He is lost in a sea of broken relationships and egos: a daughter (Emma Stone) just out of rehab; an ex-wife (Amy Ryan); a wannabe star (Naomi Watts); the other leading lady and current amour (Andrea Risborough); and, to top it all, a co-star (Ed Norton), who wants to wrest control of the show and simultaneously destroy him. He wails despairingly, ‘The play is starting to feel like a deranged, deformed version of myself.’
Iñárritu takes a razor-sharp slash at the shallowness of Hollywood – Riggan rails against the some of the big names: Meg Ryan, Robert Downey Jr and, to our amusement, Justin Bieber. He does not stop there, giving life to a poisonous Broadway citric, Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), who has the power to destroy a show, without even seeing it. Her vitriol of Riggan knows no bounds: he is the most despicable of ‘actors’, a celeb who thinks he can take up valuable space on Broadway which should be given over to a true thespian.
Iñárritu seemingly has no fear of whom he may offend, and with reason as director of movies of the calibre of Amores Perros (one of my all-time favourites), Babel, Biutiful and 21 Grammes. He also scathingly pays tribute to the power of social media over careers: Riggan doesn’t even have a Facebook or twitter account – no wonder he’s washed up. Naturally the tide turns when he becomes an overnight media sensation, thanks to his daughter.
Some have deemed this a comedy; admittedly there are some amusing parts, but hardly laugh-out-loud; its drama is more akin to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?if you ask me. This is the classic discomfort type of funny, as when Riggan gets locked out of the theatre clad in nowt but his undies, and has to stride through his adoring fans to get back in the theatre; an allegory perhaps on his jounrey back to fame (allegories are funny, right?) but it feels cringingly unsettling. Schadenfreude more like.
It may be hard to like or even enjoy the film, but one cannot deny its flashes of brilliance. Keaton is simply superb as the tormented, Machiavellian Riggan; Ed Norton personifies the self-obsessed destructive actor, Mike, who wants to be he centre of attention; the four leading ladies are evidence of the destructiveness of a career in acting, each giving her story with a heartfelt twist. Iñárritu breaks new ground in his ‘one-take’ directing. So if the Golden Globes are anything to go by – and they normally mirror the Oscars – then it’s Birdmanfor best picture and Eddie Redmayne for best actor. But don’t bank on it…Hollywood will either love or hate this movie that ridicules it.