BIRDMAN (OR THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Featuring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, Lindsay Duncan, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, and Naomi Watts
Length: 119 minutes
Review Date: December 14, 2014
What is it about Birdman that makes me feel so uncomfortable?
I have been trying to work this out for several days after viewing the film early last week. It could be the gritty New York streets which seem so dank and dark; Or perhaps its the claustrophobic set, which is established in and around the immediate vicinity of a Broadway theater; Or perhaps, yet again, it is the dizzying camera work which follows the lead characters up and down narrow stair wells, into dirty bathrooms and in and around tiny dressing rooms.
It could be the uneasy mix of hard American realism laced with Latin American magical realism, which is jarring and sometimes distracting.
Or perhaps it is the fact that this film is in reality a film of a play within a play which is retold in many different ways over the course of two hours and involves characters who are broken and quite knocked around by their individual life experiences. Perhaps their world is so circumscribed by their situations and their interactions with one another that there is no actual room for the audience to share their dilemmas and their crises.
The story revolves around Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) a screen actor who 30 years before had played the fictional Birdman in a series of films which were enormously successful. In an attempt to rehabilitate an acting career which was, he feels, prostituted to fame and money, he has written a play based on the Raymond Carver short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love which he has chosen to produce and direct himself. In a four person cast , the play, of which we only see snippets (and the same snippets over and over again – even if performed in different ways) reveals the characters of the actors as much as the actors as characters and the trials of the actors on stage seems to mimic the trials of the actors in real life. In real life Riggan is a divorcee with a truant, whip smart 20 -year- old daughter ( Emma Stone) whom he has hired as his assistant. He is filled with self-doubt and misgivings about his career and haunted by his alter ego The Birdman who plays on his conscience throughout the film. The supporting male lead ( for both the film and the play) is Mike Shiner ( Edward Norton) , a deeply opinionated braggart who has his own idiosyncratic reading of the play and whose stage tantrums nearly upend it. Lesley (Naomi Watts) — to some unexpected news from the production’s other actress, Lesley (Naomi Watts), the female lead, is an experienced screen actress who has been desperate to open on Broadway for all her acting career; And Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is Riggan’s some time frustrated lover who is not sure how she fits into the actor’s life or really into the play itself.
Riggan feels that the play is truly his last chance to re-establish himself as a serious actor and in many ways he is standing on the ledge of his own life, looking down, not certain whether it is worth it. In fact all the actors in this film are in one way or another standing out on the ledge of their lives and ‘the ledge’ plays as a metaphor consistently throughout the film as Riggan, Mike and Natalie at one time or another dangle from a window sill, a parapet or the edge of a roof top and look down.
We look down into the abyss with these characters as they pass through their existential crises. The film asks questions about the emptiness of fame without love, money without artistic success and familial ties without commitment but in the end answers none of them. We are left wondering at the end, even with the play an unexpected artistic triumph, what the characters have really gained except for a temporary reprieve from oblivion. When Riggan ultimately destroys his alter ego, his imagined or real flight, independent of that fictional being, leaves only questions about who he really is.
Identity is the central dilemma for these characters as it must be for most serious actors. So habituated to thinking and performing as characters who are not themselves they fnd it difficult to play their own real life roles as husbands, fathers and lovers – which results in a sense of alienation when they return to resume their own reality.
Ultimately, Birdman is unsatisfying because it fails to provide true contact between the actors and their audience – which is true enough for the play within a play as much as it is true for the film itself. A highly stylized film that we are made to feel was recorded all in one take, has made an American film with the flavor of a Latin American one. The magic realism of those great South American novelists has never translated all that well to film and this is so for Birdman as well. Where Riggan first imagines he is flying and then perhaps is actually flying; where the Birdman is not a fictional alter ego but a flesh and blood character who speaks to Riggan as if their roles are reversed; or where the jazz drummer, whose pattering is heard in the background throughout the film and who then makes a sudden, inexplicable cameo appearance completely out of context in one of the last scenes. At one point, Riggan strolls down the street, clicking his fingers to make cars explode, and balls of flame sizzle from the heavens. There is even a giant black griffin that clings to a skyscraper and screeches down at city life. It is a confusing and disturbing mix of fantasy and fiction where the lines between the two are often blurred – much like we see in the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez , Jorge Amado and Maria Vargas Llosa.
Without successfully resolving the many tensions in the film between fact and fiction, real life and stage life and monetary success and artistic success, the movie leaves us pondering too many open ended questions without providing quite enough clues to answer them. That might be fine for a novel, whose length provides the author with enough scope to guide the reader forward. But for a film of only two hours, the open endedness only brings frustration and dissatisfaction, a great shame for a movie which could have been so much more.