Over the course of his brief but brilliant feature filmography, Alejandro González Iñárritu has delivered his fair share of gut punches. The car crash in Amores Perros, the final scene in 21 Grams, the shooting in Babel, the discovery of the dead immigrants in Biutiful; all are moments of heart-shattering devastation, and all are conjured by a director of great vision and vast scope. Iñárritu’s latest film Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, to give it it’s full title), once more displays the incredible ambition of this tenacious filmmaker and artist. The only gut punch likely to leave you reeling however, is the realisation that it’s just not as enjoyable as it should be.
It is the repugnantly narcissistic world of show businesses to which Iñárritu transports us. Specifically a small theatre on Broadway, where washed-up actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), once famous for playing the iconic screen superhero ‘Birdman’, is attempting to reinvent himself by directing and starring in his own play. As the opening night beckons, an endless torrent of professional and personal disasters involving himself, his manquée daughter (Emma Stone), and his egomaniacal co-star (Edward Norton) threaten to derail the show before it has begun. And then there’s Riggan’s eponymous former onscreen alter ego, who has manifested himself within the actor’s psyche and torments him with the memories of his former glories.
In a purely technical sense, Birdman soars higher than anything Iñárritu has made before. Having left audiences gasping for breath with his forceful use of the camera during last year’s Gravity, here cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki immerses us within the world found at the back of a Broadway stage. With the assistance of Douglas Crise’s pristine editing, Iñárritu and Lubezki have manipulated the film to appear as one long take. It’s a seamless and successful feat that allows the audience to pulse through the veins of the theatre’s beating heart. It’s a realm of the ridiculous, but also, you suspect, the very real, where actors constantly try to separate their own minds from that of their character’s, producers constantly worry about the monetary return on their venture, and relatives contribute more stress than they do support.
Wonderfully bringing to life this irrational and egotistical milieu from every angle are the flawless performances. Keaton commands the screen as the actor constantly waging war with his Lycra-clad inner demon while striving to make a new name for himself. Emma Stone once more proves her sharp-tonged prowess, practically spitting venom during her sudden outburst at her father’s lack of importance. And Edward Norton lights up the stage with his deliciously dark comic turn as a method actor who’s only able to communicate his thoughts and feelings when he’s in front of an audience. The greatest revelation though is Zach Galifianakis, mercifully stripped of his archetypal man-child persona and given the opportunity to let loose as Riggan’s best friend and the show’s producer, whose growing exasperation as he watches his investment crumble around him paves the way to many of the script’s biggest belly laughs.
Collaborated on by Iñárritu and writers Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo, the screenplay is one that’s brimming with opinions and observations on the state of an artistic industry that’s more concerned with self-image and revenue than actually crafting something that’s instilled with creative merit. Disappointingly however, Iñárritu never seems able to reach the thematic heights he aims towards. Throughout, the writer/director remains frustratingly content with offering the bare bones of thoughts and ideas that would be far more satisfying if they had some actual meat attached to them.
Iñárritu’s only real area of focus from the start is Riggan’s mind, and despite Keaton’s assured performance that’s just not a pleasant, or indeed interesting, place to be. It’s soon becomes a cloying struggle to try and engage with such a conceited central character, and the worse things get for him and the more sorry he feels for himself, the harder it is to care. Of course, one can’t help but feel that this may be the point, but that doesn’t make it any more entertaining. Riggan’s ignorance may well be virtuous to him, but it’s anything but blissful for us.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) will be released in UK cinemas 1 January 2015.