Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman Online Poster 2 Final
Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Starring Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone & Naomi Watts
In UK Cinemas January 1st, 2015

by Richard Hamer

Taped to the side of the dressing table of cantankerous, perennially stressed actor Riggan Thomas – played with maniacal passion by Michael Keaton – is a piece of paper bearing the words “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing”.

Those are perhaps the best words to sum up Birdman; a wonderful yet chaotic film, a satire of popular culture so self aware of the language of critics, of the inherent contradictions in its own message, that to critique it too closely feels like playing it at its own game. But I can at least say this: Birdman is brilliant, beguiling stuff, wholly original in its execution (if not its actual themes), and certainly one of the best films of the year.

Edited to give the appearance of one, continuous tracking shot, we follow – and it really does feel like follow – Riggan, former nineties superstar and lead in the successful ‘Birdman’ super hero franchise, as he desperately tries to get a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love to opening night. Set almost entirely within the theatre’s winding backstage corridors, we watch Riggan as he contends with out of control actors, escalating budgets, injuries on set and – most significantly – the increasingly dark ramblings of the voice inside his own rapidly decaying mind.

What could have been a cheap gimmick quickly proves to be one of the movies greatest assets. There’s a sense of claustrophobia, of intense voyeurism as the camera lurks behind each character through dressing rooms and catwalks, dingy back alleys and tight, winding stairwells. At this distance, confrontations between characters feel violently real. The nervous, creative tension of the theatre is captured perfectly.

And if the camera is the eyes and the head of this tension, then the soundtrack is its beating heart. Antonio Sanchez’s powerful, persistent drum score feels improvised at times, a free jazz cacophony that accompanies every explosive argument, each cymbal crash the shredding of a nerve inside Riggan’s head.

But thankfully the human element is not lost in all this, and performances are excellent across the board. Keaton pulls out a career best; combining the crazy, hissing, bug-eyed Keaton-isms we know and love with the genuine soul of a man past his best and fighting tooth and nail for one last shot at career relevance – that is at times touching. Edward Norton, as talented but obnoxiously pretentious star Mike Shiner, butts up against this hilariously, as artistic demands collide against financial realities in a production that spirals quickly out of control. Throw in star turns from Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis and Naomi Watts and you have a movie that, creatively, excels on every level.

But as I hinted at earlier, it’s the worth of the overall message that is harder to pin down. At its core, Birdman is a darkly funny satire of Hollywood; of the struggle for artistic self worth in a world of superhero mega franchises and YouTube videos of cats that pull in more punters than Citizen Kane. But in deriding the vacuousness of dumb, comic book excess with a cast who largely made their names from it, or by mocking the pretension of using self-consciously “arty” work to prop up the career of an older fading star while being just that, Birdman risks having its own cake and eating it too, of being so knowing as to become insufferable.

Yet it works. Amazingly well in fact. For all its occasional snideness, there is something in its every line of dialogue, its every moment of surreal madness; a certain glint in the eye, a wry smile on the lips that lets you know that it knows that you know that you’re both in on the joke, and that’s what makes it so mesmerising.

A thing is a thing, not what is said of the thing. For Birdman at least, no truer words have been spoken.

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