'Birdman' Is Proof American Film Industry Is Soaring

Director Alejandro Inarritu offers a rich experience, and knows exactly when to pull back before we become overwhelmed.

Atsushi Nishijima

Birdman Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu; written by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo; with Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, Andrea Riseborough, Lindsay Duncan

Magical realism is a distinctive feature of Latin art, whether in painting, literature or film, and it now reaches a cinematic peak in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Birdman.” The movie is a tour de force, attacking us from so many directions that we no longer care if, in the course its almost two-hour hurtle, it occasionally goes off the rails.

“Birdman” – subtitled “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” – tells the story of Riggan Thompson, an actor made famous by his recurring movie role as a superhero named Birdman. His career declined after he refused to appear in “Birdman IV,” but Riggan is still Birdman, inside and out. Fans who recognize him continue to identify the aging star with his most famous role, as if all of the work he has done since then has left no trace. He lives in the shadow of a giant poster of himself as Birdman; and Birdman sometimes speaks to him, offering insights about life that Riggan is not really willing to accept. He still has some of his hero’s superpowers, such as telekinesis and the ability to blow up a car by snapping his fingers.

Riggan is played by Michael Keaton, whose career peaked with his role as Batman in Tim Burton’s 1989 and 1992 movies. After that Keaton found himself out of the spotlight, though his talents remained undiminished. Even in minor pictures, his screen presence has always been challenging, and he even made a movie of his own in 2008, “The Merry Gentleman,” an interesting work that suggests considerable ability and intelligence. Riggan Thompson could somewhat superficially be described as Michael Keaton’s alter ego, a self-portrait of the actor himself. Riggan wants to make his comeback (as Inarritu’s movie indeed allowed Keaton to do) on Broadway; he has written a play based on Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and is both directing the production and starring in it.

Riggan’s world, which exists in the shadow of Birdman (and to some extent also of Keaton), features several other characters. These include Jake (Zach Galifianakis), his best friend, producer and lawyer; Sylvia (Amy Ryan), his ex-wife; his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), who has just come out of rehab; and two actresses who appear in his play, Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who informs him at the beginning of the movie that she is pregnant with his child. There is also Mike (Edward Norton), a movie star and Lesley’s partner, who is hastily summoned by the production when one of the actors is injured in an accident. The role falls to him by default, because Woody Harrelson is busy with “The Hunger Games” and Michael Fassbender and Robert Downey, Jr., are involved in superhero projects of their own.

To describe Mike as a pretentious pain in the ass would be an understatement; his misbehavior throws the early performances into chaos and deepens Riggan’s already profound existential anxiety. What makes matters even worse is Riggan’s encounter with New York Times theater critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), who is full of contempt for what she considers untalented movie stars who come to Broadway to prove their artistic merit. She tells Riggan she intends to pan his show, even though she has not yet seen it.

Just listing all of these materials already suggests the complex experience that “Birdman” offers; Inarritu takes them and makes a movie that is thrillingly impossible to define. (The fact that a picture of this sort has been so well-received, including nine Oscar nominations, is a feather in the cap of the American film industry). Located somewhere between reality and hallucination, between comedy and its opposite, “Birdman” touches on so many issues that it might have been dizzying. But it is not, thanks to the virtuoso ability with which it is written and performed. Inarritu’s previous movies – “Amores perros” (which first made him famous), “21 Grams” and “Babel” – were harsh, depressing works that at times felt schematic and self-important. “Birdman,” while no less serious, is full of a liberated, liberating creativity that sweeps us along (this despite the fact that two of Inarritu’s co-writers are Nicolas Giacobone and Armando Bo, who worked with him on “Biutiful” – an unusually depressing movie, even for him).

A few weeks ago, I expressed my delight at the fact that such a distinctly non-mainstream movie as Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” is now so widely acclaimed (and has been nominated for Oscars in six categories). And now comes “Birdman,” a movie no less odd, albeit in different ways. It is set almost entirely inside the St. James Theater on Broadway, taking us onstage and backstage, roving through the theater’s winding corridors to the dressing rooms and the roof above, even heading out to the street – all the while creating the illusion of a single, unbroken shot. This illusion conveys the sense of a single, continuous gaze, which often splits off into parallel gazes focused on other characters than Riggan (some of the best scenes are between Mike and Sam on the theater roof, where Sam insists on sitting on the ledge high over the street). Kudos are due here to the extraordinary work of Mexican-born cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who won an Oscar last year for his countryman Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” – a movie that opened with an unforgettable 13-minute shot and was a brilliant cinematic spectacle from start to finish.

“Birdman” relies on dialogue more than most recent movies. Witty dialogue was a delightful staple of classic Hollywood cinema, and the lines in this film are indeed witty, ironic in a variety of ways, full of allusions and quotations. (When was the last time you heard Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag mentioned in an American movie – a movie, what’s more, about the production of a play based on a Raymond Carver story?). These tackle all the film’s many themes, such as the fear of success and of failure, the desire for fame and the distortions it causes, the clash between high and low art, artistic survival as an existential issue, and more.

Above all, “Birdman” is a vehicle for Michael Keaton, whose performance might be considered bold because of its function as a self-portrait and his willingness to expose his wrinkled face and thinning hair, which he disguises with a wig onstage. But the entire cast does excellent work, not only because the characters are so well written, but because the actors all seem to have caught Inarritu’s excitement and fervor. “Birdman” offers a rich experience, but Inarritu knows exactly when to pull back before we become overwhelmed. Although much of 2014 was a cinematic disappointment, “Birdman” now joins a number of other recent films in making it a landmark year for American movies after all.