By Muhammad MuzammalCOLUMNIST
Electrifying, funny, self-referential and downright brilliant, Alejandro G. Inarritu's "Birdman,” or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a stellar piece of film which features star Michael Keaton in an ultra-meta role. Like Keaton, who played Batman in the late 1980s, “Birdman's” hero, Riggan Thomas, struggles to find success as a serious actor, being overshadowed by his own career-defining role as a caped superhero.
The film begins with what seems to be a comet falling to the sea, and then cuts to Thomas levitating in his dressing room, floating like a bird, like the camera will for the next two hours. Thomas is adapting Raymond Carver's short story, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," to the Broadway stage. He is surrounded by an entertaining cast of characters.
His daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is a former drug addict and his personal assistant, seeking the attention and love from Thomas that she never truly felt. Thomas' theater manager is Jake (a restrained Zach Galifianakis), and his supporting actresses on the stage are Lesley and Laura, played by Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough respectively. Due to a stage accident, Thomas is forced to find a new actor before the show opens.
Enter replacement, Mike Shiner, played with great and ferocious energy by Edward Norton. Witty with a rebellious attitude, Shiner makes for a fascinating counterpart to Thomas, the more controlled personality. As the film nears its climatic, main event (the premiere of the play), Thomas squares off with Shiner in ways that contain both conversational gamesmanship and slapstick comedy.
I say the film is multilayered. One of its layers has something to say about the idea of the celebrity ego. At various instances in the film Thomas has the raspy, deep voice of Birdman hectoring in his head, doubting every step he takes. His celebrity ego both protects and weakens him. It allows him to direct and star in an entire Broadway play, but he also draws detractors and critics who impale him with skepticism and disgust.
Lindsey Duncan plays a snobby New York Times theater critic who calls Thomas’ Faustian choice to play Birdman earlier in his career, “toxic” and Shiner defiantly tells Thomas that the very action of taking on a superhero role for the sole purpose of making money is “cultural genocide.” The film shows the difficulty of an artist trying to be appreciated for his own art rather than take the easy way out and sell his soul to devilish Hollywood studios and make another “Birdman” sequel (cue the Marvel Universe).
In what can be considered as Emma Stone’s most powerfully scene to date, Sam screams at Thomas, “Face it dad, you’re doing this to feel relevant again.” In the play adaptation, Thomas’ character delivers a moving monologue which includes the words: “I don’t exist.” Inarritu's film is about the struggle to be relevant for your own art, but the film takes place in the modern world. There are scenes where social networks are used to blow up Thomas’ personal life and in the most absurdly sexual scene of any film this year, Shiner has an erection on stage which, according to Sam will “get more Twitter followers than the play itself.” “Birdman” thus becomes a social commentary on society's obsession with cheap entertainment as opposed to its reluctance or ignorance to a serious artistic endeavor.
Despite its deep-rooted cynicism in mainstream entertainment, “Birdman” never condescends, It tells its story in a fluid fashion and focuses on the characters and mostly, our need to wake up and become an active audience member and value the work of serious artists out there.
The film is digitally composed to give the illusion of one single take, filmed by “Gravity’s” cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Imagine the first 13 minute single shot sequence of “Gravity” stretched out to nearly two hours and you get “Birdman’s” aesthetic design. In the film, the camera becomes a character, always dipping and darting through the actors. The offbeat, intense percussive jazz score from musician Antonio Sanchez is a perfect decision for the film, matching the offbeat, intense tone.
But what makes the film so intense is its performances, particularly from Stone, Norton and Keaton. Stone is restless and alienated as Thomas’ daughter, especially in scenes where she wants Thomas to be relevant not just for the theater crowd but for her as well. Norton plays Shiner with the exact type of manic, obsessive energy that is needed. He shows Shiner’s strict commitment to realism in a few absurd onstage scenes, but also reveals a weird, touching poignancy in character when he tells Sam in a rooftop conversation that he wishes to see through her 20-year old eyes.
This film belongs to Keaton. On par with “Being John Malkovich,” “Birdman” attempts - and succeeds - to deconstruct its star’s ego and break down his vanity to show us something deeper. Keaton is required to be superficial in the onstage play sequences but he needs to be angry, frustrated and reflective as the problems keep piling up for Thomas. This is a tricky balancing act and the results are nothing but impressive.
Alejandro G. Inarritu, known to have directed four deeply depressing, albeit powerful dramas, goes for something more ambitious with “Birdman.” He’s made a film that although dons a magical realist look, asks us to question our own identity, and our place in the world. Inarritu’s script, co-written by Armando Bo, playwright Alexander Dinelaris Jr., and Nicolas Giacobone, includes pop culture references, intellectual remarks and scenes which can stand alone as a few astounding short films.
In the end, “Birdman” soars. With its casting, writing, direction and execution, this is the most riveting film of the year and a challenging work of art that entertains, invigorates and ascends the viewer to the highest levels of cinema.