“A poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage…”
These words from Shakespeare’s Macbeth appear about halfway through Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, screamed by a crazy person on the streets of New York while the film’s antihero is at his lowest point. Michael Keaton, playing a washed-up Hollywood actor trying to restart his career with a staging of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” struts and frets at every hour of his play’s opening weekend. The film itself, meanwhile, is “full of sound and fury,” and although with Iñarritu at the helm Birdman is hardly a “tale told by an idiot,” the question of what exactly it signifies is still open. Something more than nothing, certainly, even if I’m not yet sure what that something is.
But let me back up. Birdman tells the story of an actor named Riggan Thompson, who made millions playing a Batman-like comic-book character called, you guessed it, Birdman. But that was then, and this is now—and now Riggan has an estranged ex-wife (Amy Ryan), a daughter fresh from rehab (Emma Stone), and a fellow producer (Zach Galifianakis) who’s getting increasingly desperate for Riggan’s late-career play at being a true artist to be a commercial success, and not the bankrupting bomb that he (and we) suspect it is.
This is all pretty well-worn territory, the sort of privileged-white-man-in-crisis story that we already see too much of in film and literature. But Birdman is delivered with such brio, from the direction and cinematography to the performances, that you’ll hardly notice the clichéd subject matter until you leave the theater. The film is dark, the comedy pitch black—but watching it, you can’t shake the sense that everyone involved was having so much fun. The actors throw themselves into their performances with abandon, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki—already known for his stunning long takes in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity and Children of Men—makes use of some creative special effects and cuts to make the whole film seem one single, unbroken shot. Each frame is a wonder to behold.
Birdman, like its protagonist, has a lot on its mind—maybe too much. Chief among its concerns is the status and worth of art in a world of mass entertainment. Riggan got his start as a comic-book star, then walked away from the franchise to preserve his artistic integrity. But in the intervening years, the culture has gone the opposite direction: when they need to find an actor, and quick, Riggan rattles off names only to find that all the great talent is booked up doing Iron Man, X-Men, and the Avengers. Ultimately they settle on Mike Shiner, played hilariously by Edward Norton, who believes that Hollywood is perpetrating a “cultural holocaust,” and pursues his own passion for creative integrity and truth in theater to unfortunate and occasionally horrifying ends.
Shiner’s absurd self-regard and almost cruel dedication to his craft raise the other thematic specter of the film: the possibility that good art might make awful humans, and that only awful humans make good art. Every character in the film is emotionally scarred in a deep and inexpressible way. Shiner’s an empty shell who can only feel when he’s faking; Riggan’s daughter is a recovering addict locked in conflict with everything around her; and Riggan himself might be insane. He’s got an imaginary friend: the gravelly-voiced Birdman of his past, equal parts cheerleader, tormentor, and unhinged id. Birdman seems to represents that part of Riggan that doesn’t care about art, the part of him that just wants to make money and be awesome, cultural holocaust be damned—the part of him that wants to fly.
And what’s so wrong with that? What good is “true art” if it only makes the humans who create and consume it miserable? It’s significant, here, that the story Riggan chooses to adapt for his return to artistic relevance is Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It’s a masterpiece of the short story form that is also dramatically inert—it’s basically just four people sitting around a table, drinking gin and swapping stories. That Riggan would try to make a successful stage play out of such material shows just how misguided he is.
And more than that—how sad. It’s all in Carver’s title: the story isn’t about love, but about all the other stuff we talk about when we talk about love. Obsession, depression, abuse, ego, narcissism. It’s about the possibility that love might not actually exist. That all of human life, and striving, and art, is nothing more than a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.
That makes Birdman sound like a depressing affair, but unlike some of Iñárritu’s previous work (Amores Perros and Babel come to mind), the film is never weighed down by the heft of its thematic ambitions. Somehow, Iñárritu manages to combine all these dark motifs and turn them into finger-snapping jazz. The actors help: Keaton, and Norton, and Stone all put in bold and hilarious performances that ought to get them plenty of nominations and awards in the months ahead.
There’s also Lubezki’s camera, which—to flirt with a cliché—is such a persistent and meaningful presence in the film that it becomes a character unto itself. The single-shot illusion is more than just a technical high-wire act. (Though it is that, too.) Through a variety of settings, a multitude of scenes, a myriad of palettes and moods, that seemingly unbroken shot somehow manages to convey the whole comedy and tragedy of the ego—the tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow of looking out on the world through a single set of eyes. It is by turns claustrophobic, and manic, and bleak, and deluded, and glorious.
But then again, so is being human.