Exhaustion is probably a word not often associated with film appreciation. Birdman (2014) exhausted this viewer.
In a comedy about the theatre, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life, 2011 and Gravity 2013) employs the camera to take us, breathtakingly at times, through three days in the life of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) and his quest to star and direct a Broadway show he has adapted from a Raymond Carver* story.
As Riggan tries to put this together his inner doubts manifest in the presence of a (mostly) unseen alter ego, Birdman, the action hero movie character which once made him a household name.
Riggan has problems. An actor is injured on stage during rehearsal and has been replaced at the last minute by an egomaniac theatre tragic; daughter Sam is proving a handful and there is the chance she may be back on drugs; his girlfriend and fellow cast member Laura (Andrea Riseborough) tells him she is pregnant; an influential critic wants to bury his play; and he has mortgaged himself to the limit to fund the play. Ticket sales are slow.
Birdman is mid-life crisis displayed for all to see.
Seemingly shot in one take at times, the camera follows Riggan a la Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) when the young hood takes his new girlfriend through a service entrance at New York’s Copacabana. They pass security flunkies in tuxedos, the kitchen and other usually unseen workings of a hot club/restaurant before entering the dining area and having a table brought from out wide to be set up right in front of the performing Henny Youngman. Birdman uses the same technique in many of its scenes, which often seem like one shot as the camera exposes the reality of stage against the shallowness of film where mistakes can be fixed by re-doing the scene.
Close-following camera of the ensuing action and its frantic speed give the audience an idea of how unglued Riggan has become. All the while Birdman hangs dangerously at his shoulder. The alter ego is Riggan’s conscience and his potential nemesis. It is the voice inside all of us when we take a big risk.
Birdman wants Riggan to go back to making action movies. It will be easy money and the glamorous lifestyle will resume but this is not what the actor/director wants. He is making a a statement about his art. We are witnessing his inner struggle of creativity versus the easy buck and Birdman spares no part of the entertainment world in its criticism, mostly through poking fun at the egos associated with all its parts.
Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu co-wrote the film with Alexander Dinelaris, Nicolas Giacobone and Armando Bo and I was pleased to see an interview with two of these writers where at least one of them said they still did not understand the ending. What does Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone) see when she looks out the hospital window?
The best explanation came from the other writer who said the film opened with something impossible – Riggan levitating off the ground while meditating – and had to finish in the same way. It is up to the viewer to decide what the ending means.
Michael Keaton is marvellous in the lead. His performance, in what must have been a difficult film to shoot, is left a lot to his facial expressions as he is often in close up. There is nowhere for a bad actor to hide in this role and Keaton displays enormous range as Riggan tries to look confident and in control with his inner doubts exposed just behind the facade.
Edward Norton’s serious stage actor, Mike, adds to his wide range of complex character actor portrayals and Stone is extremely effective.
Birdman is very funny and completely cutting of the entertainment industry and its components. It was also exhausting to follow.
* Raymond Clevie Carver, Jr. was an American short story writer and poet. Carver contributed to the revitalization of the American short story in literature during the 1980s
– If you want a comparison with another film about stage the best is perhaps All About Eve (1950). This film is brilliantly scripted; has a wow performance from Bette Davis; and features Marilyn Monroe in one of her earliest small parts.
– Birdman writers interview at http://www.vulture.com/2014/12/why-the-birdman-writers-embraced-mediocrity.html
– Goodfellas Copacabana scene https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IBMKyNJvNV8