Inarritu Finds His Wings, Riggan Falls Flat (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman)

Inarritu’s visual symphony aims for the stars, but the burden of a tedious central character sends it plummeting back to Earth.  The result is an intense and frequently stunning, yet ultimately exhausting  experience.

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“There’s nothing here about technique! There’s nothing in here about structure! There’s nothing in here about intentions! It’s just a bunch of crappy opinions, backed up by even crappier comparisons,” faded movie star Riggan (Michael Keaton) retorts to esteemed theater critic Tabitha (the ever-excellent Lindsay Duncan).  In a display of power and petty resentment, Tabitha has cast professional ethics aside, deciding in advance to pan his virgin foray into the cruel world of Broadway.  Or maybe she just likes watching him sweat.

I wish I could say the same.

There can be no denying that technique is masterful throughout Birdman, a meticulously well-crafted piece of filmmaking, with some high-caliber performances, and virtuoso cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki that strives to elevate the work to the highest echelons of cinema.

At times the form is subtly audacious and enthralling, as we watch complex action unfold around a mobile camera in perfectly executed extended takes (the whole movie appears seamless), at others the form becomes conspicuous and self-consciously spectacular, soaring awkwardly into the realms of magical realism.    The melding of styles is visually exciting, but is the content worthy of the form?

Birdman, ostensibly a satire, is essentially a portrait of an unlikeable character: “entitled, selfish, spoiled,”  as Tabitha nails it.  So far so good.  Alas, Birdman is also a portrait of an uninteresting character.  In an interview published in Variety, Inarritu speaks of his desire in making the film to create an “inescapable reality” and take the audience with him.  This is exactly where we spend the next two hours: trapped inside Riggan’s head.  Unfortunately he is a nauseating bore.

A man of few redeeming qualities, Riggan is so self-obsessed he is incapable of perceiving a world beyond his own petty problems.  He is even a failure as a narcissist, lacking the charisma to captivate a dazzled circle of admirers .  Guided by his ego and indeed his alter-ego in the form of the Batman-like Birdman, Keaton spits through his performance as Riggan lurches from one delusional tantrum to the next, with little discernible character arc beyond growing desperation and a faltering grip on reality.

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Perhaps the only good thing to be said about Riggan, is that he doesn’t lack courage when it comes to putting his own neck on the line – if only as part of his overarching, immature quest for external validation.  Teetering on the verge of a possible comeback, Riggan is hoping to gain universal acclaim for his adaptation, direction and performance, showcased in a new play based on a Raymond Carver story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

It is a bold risk.  But Riggan’s comeback is the definition of a vanity project, which is what irks Tabitha so. He chooses Carver not for his admiration of Carver’s talent, but for Carver’s supposed admiration of his.  A (possibly drunk) Carver once flattered Riggan when he appeared in a juvenile production, by sending a signed note on a cocktail napkin praising his “honest performance”, thus causing Riggan’s talents to soar in his own estimation.

As broadway actor and critics’ darling Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) astutely posits – or possibly borrows from some contemporary tweeting version of Dorothy Parker, given the prevalence of technology in the film – “popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige”.  Riggan is a man who has given up massive popularity, hoping to exchange it for prestige, but never making the grade.  Brave?  Foolish?  He tries to rectify this with the supposed authenticity of the theater.  An association Tabitha believes he has not earned: “You’re no actor, you’re a celebrity. Let’s be clear on that,” she chides him.

Birdman does not lack for humor and wit, and could perhaps best be classified as a black comedy.  The dialogue is often gratingly crass but littered with gems such as “how do you know Mike?”… “We share a vagina.” However, on balance, these comedic elements offer only temporary relief from the intense claustrophobia of being stuck with Riggan through the course of his meltdown.  This sensation is enhanced by the ambitious musical score featuring Antonio Sanchez’s frenetic jazz drumming, which is both impressive and effective, yet becomes increasingly abrasive.

As the flowing camera tracks through the corridors of the dingy theater or along the bustling streets of New York City, I couldn’t help wishing it would change tack and spend the rest of the film following one of the supporting characters, or float off into those city streets and find a compelling character with a fascinating story.  There is certainly a world of contrast between the lead characters in Birdman and Inarritu’s 2010 portrait film “Biutiful”.  Javier Bardem’s gut-wrenching performance as the complex, flawed and compassionate Uxbal blows this bird out of the water, exposing Riggan by comparison as fundamentally shallow and dull.

As for Keaton’s performance, the near-universal praise he has received is not unmerited.  It would be easy to underestimate the rigor demanded by the technical challenges involved in shooting extended takes with an ever-moving camera and no room for editing.  And he is entirely convincing as the deeply tedious, insecure actor, trying to make the most of what he secretly fears may be mediocre talents.  But Riggan’s pathetic tantrums, which involve shouting and throwing things (telekinetically or otherwise) are all one-note, and it is telling that when Norton’s Mike Shiner has his own tantrum, he steals the show.

Norton is excellent as incendiary method actor Shiner, infuriatingly more intelligent, talented and younger than Riggan, having already attained that elusive prestige.  Like Riggan he is an egotist, but Shiner is driven to relentlessly push for the authentic moment in ways Riggan initially can’t even imagine.  Typically this involves offending people, shocking them, or frightening them.

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Riggan & Shiner square off

In a memorable scene that also serves as a metaphor for many elements of the movie, Shiner engages with Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone) in a little game of truth or dare.  Danger and truth are a lifestyle for Shiner, ‘the real deal’ at least on stage, which he claims is all that is real for him.  Apparently it is the only time he can get hard.  When he seemingly makes an unsuccessful attempt to rape his girlfriend on-stage during a performance, Shiner’s aim has nothing to do with rape and everything to do with eliciting adrenaline and genuine fear.

This brutal methodology undeniably gets results for Shiner – after all, an “honest” performance is a holy grail for “serious” actors – but what of Riggan’s process?  If there is any character development, it might be found here.  His acting in the play at first seems borderline bad, but improves with each rehearsal, as he become increasingly unhinged offstage.  He certainly learns a few things from Shiner, and attempts to imitate and even outdo him towards the end of the story.

The space of the theater itself is shown as a self-contained world which, Birdman growls, “smells like balls.”  This olfactory dud is really a sanctuary for Riggan, where he generally can be the center of attention and gets to be, if not idolized, at least indulged by those around him.  These accommodating “theater pussies” include Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Laura (Andrea Riseborough), as Shiner and Riggan’s girlfriends respectively.

Riseborough in particular has fun with her character, and despite being Riggan’s lover she is able to take life’s ups and downs more lightly than the tortured actor and those caught up in his aura.  “I wish I had more self-respect,” Lesley laments after Shiner’s hair-raising assault; Laura’s reply is simple: “You’re an actress.”  Most understated is Zac Galifianakis, bringing a calm, reassuring presence to Riggan’s loyal, long-suffering friend and lawyer Jake.

Stone is outstanding in the strong cast as Riggan’s 20-something, recovering addict daughter Sam.  A tough new Yorker, with the requisite bird and arrow tattoos, stick-thin frame, leather jacket and tousled blond rock-hair, she is always low-key.  Despite or perhaps because of her troubles, Sam emanates an inner confidence that makes her seem the adult in her relationship with Riggan, and more than a match for Shiner with whom she ignites some fiery chemistry.

Stone is undeniably sexy in the role, but her body hovers worryingly close to anorexia, a physical transformation that seems to make her eyes huge in her face, not unlike a treefrog.  Lubezki’s cinematography  wisely capitalizes on this bug-eyed look which gives her the appearance of struggling to contain a thousand ineffable things.  This culminates in the iconic final shot of the movie, where she enters a state of rapture, an example of the sublime in cinema that stands on a par with the masters (Herzog, Kieslowski, Dryer) and as such would be worthy of a much more profound movie.

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And here is the essential problem with the work: much as it strives to transcend the mundane it remains mired there.  The magical realism is heavy-handed, slugging the audience in the face with unearned metaphorical meaning.  Birdman opens with Riggan in his dressing room, casually levitating, in a shot reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006).  This would seem suggest a spirituality about the character, perhaps a calm and oneness with the world.  If anything, it can only be read as a sign of Riggan’s delusion, later expressed in as many words as he literally flies over the city, that he is above ordinary mortals, looking down on them.  A god, even.  This is where we find him, and also exactly where we leave him.

Sam’s rapture at the movie’s close seems counter-intuitive, because of all the characters, Sam is most aware of her fathers’ spiritual bankruptcy.  The only meaningful actions he takes towards his daughter in the movie are betrayals of the most terrible kind.  In one scene, Riggan’s desperate quest for relevance is brutally outlined by Sam: “let’s face it, Dad, it’s not forthe sake of art. It’s because you want to feel relevant again. Well, there’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn’t even exist! … You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what?  You’re right.”

I must admit that by the end, I found it impossible to care what happened to Riggan.  The denouement felt like kind of a cheap shot, and I had a feeling I’d seen this all somewhere before.  That said, given Riggan’s apparent hallucinations, and the numerous visual metaphors and allusions in the film, it is certainly a juicy treat for those who enjoy analyzing and delving into theories of meaning.

Suffice to say, the magical events we experience are witnessed only by Riggan himself, until the final scene, where something has changed.  Suicide is a constant specter in the film, referenced in scene after scene, and in much of the film’s more abstract imagery.  The idea of self-annihilation has particular relevance to nirvana-seeking Buddhists and truth-seeking actors, and as such one might interpret this as Riggan’s quest.  But I never had the sense Riggan was the spiritual type, and when his ex Sylvia (Amy Ryan) tells him he “confuses love for admiration” she reveals his tragic flaw and the banal quest he will sacrifice anything to pursue.

Many will hail Birdman as proof that Inuarito is a genius.  And perhaps it is.  But when all is said and done, I came back to that conversation between Riggan and Tabitha.

Riggan asks “Did I did something to offend you?”

Tabitha replies “As a matter of fact, you did. You took up space on a theater which otherwise might have been used on something worthwhile.”

Though overly harsh, I can relate to her sentiments.  Given this is an outstanding piece of filmmaking I wish Inarritu, Keaton et all had directed their considerable effort and undeniable talent into a more interesting character or at least allowed this one to take wing and soar to a heightened awareness.

Since I’ve devoted so much energy to bashing his (lack of) character, and shown no kindness to the fragile soul, perhaps it is only fair that I let Riggan have the last word – although with the caveat that there are no wrinkles on this bird, man.

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 “You write a couple of paragraphs and you know what?  None of this cost you fuckin’ anything!  The Fuck!  You risk nothing! Nothing! This play cost me everything!  So I tell you what, you take this fucked-up malicious cowardly shittily written review and you shove that right the fuck up your wrinkly tight ass.”