“And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.”
(Raymond Carver, A New Path to the Waterfall)
It is a rare thing indeed in this shout-everything-from-the-rooftop age that a film comes along that truly matches the trumpet blared hype that precedes it.
But Birdman, directed, co-produced and co-written by the fiendishly-talented Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel), not only matches the many superlatives thrown its impressive way, and quite early on too, it surpasses them with seemingly effortless ease.
A large part of that has to do with Michael Keaton’s epic performance as Riggan Thomson, a one time colossus of Hollywood who anchored the box office crushing franchise Birdman back in the ’90s before jumping ship to leverage his stardom, as so many actors do, in search of more worthy projects.
Those projects alas never came, why it is never quite made clear – although you come to understand fairly quickly that Thomson carries so many self-worth albatrosses around his neck that he is likely his own worst enemy – and so, convinced he has one last chance to make his life and career matter, invests everything in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s 1981 short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”.
An intense musing on the nature of love, the story is realised with power and passion by Thomson and the team of actors he has assembled around him, including arrogant method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) who comes with an enviable thespian reputation, sullied somewhat by a predisposition to do what he feels is artistically right, usually in direct contradiction of the people in charge, which in this case of course is a man teetering perpetually on the edge of self-immolation, whether physical or emotional.
This heady mix of crashing egos and self-esteem bolstering artistic intent brews for much of the film with the other actors in the piece, desperate-for-her-big-break Lesley (Naomi Watts), who is also Mike’s girlfriend, and Laura (Andrea Riseborough) watching on with a mix of self-interest concern and anxiety as Thomson both self-destructs and butts heads with Shiner, who you quickly discover is a man battling his demons just as Thomson is.
In the case of Thomson, his demons are complex and many, underpinned for the most part by the idea that he is worth nothing if he isn’t valued fully for his acting talent, a mindset that is less arrogance that self-pitying desperation, and which though lovingly and less-than-lovingly-but-honestly shot down by his grounded, loving ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) and prickly straight-talking daughter Sam (Emma Stone) on more than one occasion, persists, driven by the haranguing voice of Birdman in his head, which sounds not unlike Keaton’s voicing of Batman who he once, of course, played.
(The association of Keaton with the Batman franchise, Norton with the Marvel Cinematic Universe courtesy of his one time role as The Hulk and Stone as the current manifestation of Spiderman’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy, , Hollywood blockbusters all, adds a delicious layer of knowingness to the proceedings.)
Rounding out the Greek chorus of heavily-invested onlookers is Thomson’s friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) who seems to be the only one through much of the film with his feet firmly planted on the ground.
Everyone else, including bitter theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) who declared without fear or favour to Thomson at one point that she is going to shut down him with a blisteringly-bad review, play sight unseen, seems to have their own rather wildly-inflated axes to grind and egos to soothe, setting the scene for what you’re sure is going to be an explosive denouement.
But to Iñárritu’s great credit that Hollywood-worthy manipulated overly-dramatic finale never materialises – one of the film’s central exploratory ideas is the great adversarial squaring off between the worthiness of theatre and the creative bankruptcy of Hollywood which underpins, to a large degree, why Thomson is laying everything on the line for this one play – and he is content to leave the film bubbling furiously along on its own merry self-destructive way.
Birdman is enriched too by the decision to make it appear that the film was shot in one continuous sequence, its ballsy, jarring jazz-soaked scenes seamlessly segueing one into the other, often from one period of time to another as if we are watching it all happen in real time.
It grants the film a fluidity and poetically-inclined aesthetic that beautifully matches the emotional and philosophical undercurrents percolating throughout, reminding us that everything is interrelated, that everyone, even Thomson who yearns to soar far above everyone and be valued and declared worthy by his peers and the public – the scene where he soars above the city, while in reality catching a taxi to his next performance, is a thing of great beauty and emotional profundity – has as much to gain or lose as the other.
But in reality, the main neck on the artistic shopping block is Thomson’s, whose physical fate is toyed with throughout Birdman, with the narrative suggesting on more than one occasion that the pressure has become too much for the washed-up actor and he has decided to end it all, just when it appears his somewhat delusional, overreaching wishes are about to be granted (the play is well-reviewed and received by critics and the theatre-going public alike).
Thanks to its emotional honesty and fine performances by all concerned, most particularly by Keaton and Norton, and willingness to tackle a host of issues, not least the great pressure all of us carry to some extent or another to make our lives matter irrespective of the truth, Birdman is a deeply-immersive, profoundly-satsifying film that speaks about the human condition (and the way it manifests itself in the modern social media-driven celebrity age) in a way that most other films fail to match.