Birdman – Review by David Turpin
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Risborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts.
There’s a scene in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman in which our addled actor-protagonist Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), faces up to an icy theatre critic (crisply played by Lindsay Duncan), castigating her for making a career of simply “labelling” other people’s work. Thompson – who is in the midst of an attempt to both direct and star in a self-penned Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” – seems on the verge of losing the last vestiges of his fragile sanity, but his argument isn’t necessarily an invalid one. However, while subjective labelling is of limited interest to anybody save the labeller, it is surely one of any critic’s first tasks to be able to “label” a particular piece in the most basic sense – to say what it is.
Saying “what it is” is the first challenge of Birdman. Billed as Iñárritu’s “first comedy”, Birdman is antic without ever being particularly funny. Throughout, Iñárritu and his co-writers display a surprising penchant for toilet humour and jokes about genitalia, but the real joy the film possesses comes less from its one-liners than from its fizzing visual imagination. The backstage setting and tangled love-lives of its characters similarly gesture to farce, but farce (from antiquity to Fawlty Towers) involves the inexorability of a heightened comic logic – Birdman favours chaos.
The film isn’t a satire either, despite its characters’ protestations about the vacuity of Hollywood and the terrors of social media. Satire, by definition, presumes a focused target or targets, and Birdman dispenses with these in favour of scattershot lampoonery that sustains multiple ongoing contradictions. Its parody of the Hollywood blockbuster, which includes a brilliantly realised special effects sequence late in the film, seems to be the work of people on little more than nodding acquaintance with their subject. For one thing, the “destruction porn” about which Thompson nostalgically fantasises is a post-Independence Day (1996) phenomenon, while we are told that his career in blockbusters ended 20 years ago. For another, Birdman itself is as reliant on visual dazzle as any piece of “destruction porn” – its brilliantly sustained illusion of unfolding without a single cut (until the very end) is as much a cinematic “stunt” as blowing up an entire computer-generated skyscraper.
The best description your humble correspondent can come up with for Birdman is “thingamabob”. The happy news is that, as thingamabobs go, it’s a pretty good one, particularly as most of the actors rise to the challenge of energising the film’s extraordinary formal device. Much has been made of Keaton’s “comeback” in this role, and he grasps it with both hands – although the parallels between Thompson and Keaton himself are flatteringly fudged by the film’s subtle visual evocations of Batman Forever (1995), for which Keaton ceded the title role to Val Kilmer.
Elsewhere, Edward Norton’s turn as wildly conceited stage actor Mike Shiner is the best thing he’s done in years, while on the other end of the spectrum Amy Ryan provides a welcome oasis of calm amidst the hysteria, playing Thompson’s ex-wife. As the actresses appearing alongside Thompson and Shiner on stage, Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts register more deeply than Emma Stone does in a showier turn as Thompson’s daughter. Watts, particularly, brings her character to vivid life, making her seem real and specific even as the script interpolates a number of beats from her breakthrough turn in Mulholland Drive (2001).