Note. This review was originally published as part of our New York Film Festival coverage.
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…a disgruntled Michael Keaton? Closing out this year’s New York Film Festival is director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman. A fantastical exploration of inner dialogue and existential dread, this self-referential satire won’t be everyone’s flight of fancy, but its inventive story and dazzlingly strange universe creates a labyrinthine maze for its viewers to follow along.
Once the poster boy of a major superhero franchises, time, age, and the search for sanity have broken our protagonist in ways super-villains could only dream of. Actor Riggan Thomson (played by former Batman star Keaton) is attempting to reclaim his artistic integrity by staging a theatrical adaptation of a favorite Raymond Carver short story. We’re introduced to the former caped crusader as he’s meditating in mid-air, the day before his show goes to previews. Riggan seems to have superpowers, and hears his masked alter ego taunt him at every turn. The question is, is it real, or just the fabric of his mind coming apart?
Outside the dressing room, it’s chaos. Riggan’s lawyer/stage manager Jake (Zach Galifianakis) exasperatedly attempts to save the bizarre play and handle the eccentric personalities it attracts. Riggan’s volatile, possibly pregnant lover/co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is only matched in madness by the husband of their other co-star Lindsey (Naomi Watts), method acting thespian Mike (Edward Norton). The madness never stops for Riggan, who’s also struggling to connect with his estranged daughter (Emma Stone), a recovering addict. And all this, before the first curtain call.
The tug of war on Riggan’s sanity spills over to his real life. Amid cheeky bits on life in the theatre (Jake on rebuffing a gift: “Don’t make them mad. They’re union.”), Riggan’s insulated bubble begins to burst, pouring out years’ worth of illusions of grandeur. Balancing the tone of an existential crisis with clever one-liners, Inarritu navigates a fantastic made-up world without ever losing his audience.
How fantastic, you ask? Like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, Riggans is fighting against an invisible foe: obsolescence. He returns to his first source of artistic confirmation – a compliment from his hero Carver – and attempts to stage his comeback, from box office has-been to stardom once more. A mix of Sunset Boulevard and the recent Robin Wright film The Congress, Birdman takes an introspective look at an actor’s career and transforms it into a savage Hollywood critique.
Riggans’ delusions of greatness inevitably begin to betray him. A misplaced faith – in the power of critics, of a common good in actors, and of his own theatrical prowess – sets his mind on a one-track path to derailment. Soon, we too no longer know what’s real or what’s imagined in his world. But that’s Hollywood: a concept – a state of mind – where not everyone is guaranteed a second chance, and so many live in fantasy world of celebrity.
Inarritu’s supporting players are equally electric onscreen. You never know how far Edward Norton’s sociopathic realist will take his quest for authenticity, effectively getting drunk on stage after drinking real vodka, or demanding that an actual gun be used in the final scene. Galifinakis gets to play a far more restrained role than we’re used to, while Stone shines best when unleashing a pent-up monologue on her father that takes all the air out of the room.
Likewise, the spectre of a respected New York Times theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) perched at the end of the bar is a wonderful comic piece. She’s the embodiment of the thousands of critics that have written Riggan off. Yet is she is just as delusional as he is about her ability to make or break his play? The barfly critic is something of a trope, but it’s turned up here for a searingly great conflict – the super-villain amongst the chaos.
Inarritu, a critical darling of the Mexican film scene, takes a wildly different approach to Birdman than his previous forays like Babel and Amores Perros. Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki, the man behind the innovative cinematography of Gravity, appears to be aiming for a repeat on awards night with seemingly never-ending dolly shots through the tiniest of hallways. Along with Babel editor Douglas Crise and August: Osage County’s Stephen Mirrione in tow, Inarritu successfully creates the illusion of an uncut film. No jump cuts or alternating over-the-shoulder shots, just tricks to enhance the fluidity of time. Like a blown deadline, Riggan doesn’t keep track of time anymore. It’s all just sequential events to him.
Birdman is possibly the strangest of the big studio award hopefuls. Critical, but self-referential; caught in the entertainment bubble, but in the role of an outsider, looking to get back in the glow of audience adoration and raves reviews. But while the notion of what’s real and what’s imaginary gets lost, we never lose sight of the man behind the mask. Between the Roland Barthes reference, pop culture digs, and its steady parade of players on the stage, it feels as though a single review can hardly do the film justice. Indeed, where different critics fall on its divisive uses of delusion and editing illusions will be very interesting to read. Inarritu has a sequel in the works, right?