Andy Warhol used to say outtakes were more interesting than most films. That idea might be shared by director Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose new movie, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), is one giant outtake. But that's putting it lightly. Birdman is much more. It's a thrashing of the cinematic state of affairs within a surreal story about an actor seeking what all actors seek: approval. If great films comment on other films and the artform, Birdman is surely great.
Iñárritu, whose previous movies (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful) have done nothing to predict what's onscreen in Birdman, takes us inside the production of a Broadway show. On one level, it's an explosive breakdown of what goes down behind the scenes. Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a struggling actor known for his one superhero role, Birdman, is trying to adapt Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love into a play, and opening night is fast approaching.
But Birdman isn't really about the production of the play. The play is merely the forum for Iñárritu (who co-wrote the script) to lampoon the state of art today. He skewers the movie industry from every angle, starting with the cast. Keaton, forgotten in Hollywood since he made Batman more than 20 years ago, is a bundle of nerves as Thomson—the former huge star trying to mount a comeback. Edward Norton, known as a controlling method actor in reality, gives the film's best performance as Thomson's egotistical co-star, Mike Shiner. And Naomi Watts, who broke into Hollywood as an eager actress in Mulholland Drive, plays a similar role here. All of these parts are methodical comments on the process of casting itself.
The actors conspire to give Birdman its fantastic energy. Keaton portrays Riggan like Jack Nicholson might have 30 years ago, with fearless abandon. Backstage, Riggan is visited by a specter of his past life. Birdman, in glorious blue plumage, appears to Thomson at crucial moments to remind him he'll never be a real actor. The people don't want art, they want explosions, and Birdman is the incantation of truth. A card on Riggan's mirror reminds him, "A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing." Despite that, Riggan aspires to break free of the Birdman mold. Other references, including the Carver play and a shot of Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges, enhance this idea of people accepting their fates. Iñárritu laments the plight of the actor, type-cast and marginalized into oblivion.
So if Riggan is having heart to hearts with himself dressed up as a bird, is he losing it? Well, yes and no. Iñárritu electrocutes Birdman with fantastic moments of surrealism like this but none of it is really happening. Birdman can be viewed as a manifestation of Riggan's ego and, even though he tells the actor what he doesn't want to hear, he invigorates Riggan with destructive powers during every visit. The beginning finds Thomson floating cross-legged in mid-air, and he moves objects with his mind. This idea—that former glory can still hold dormant power within someone—is a dynamic one and proof of the film's depth.
Birdman is also damn funny (the entire cast is). He growls at Riggan, mocking Christian Bale's Batman voice in the Dark Knight movies, and cuts through the nonsense with Hollywood talk. He tells Riggan to make a reality show, "not this piece of shit." And the mere sight of the costumed character will bring a smile to your face. That's indicative of the entire film, which is so chock-a-block with amazing cinematic moments and visuals, you'll be stunned. The cinematography, by the great Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) is astounding and worth seeing despite everything else.
As Riggan struggles to bring his play to fruition, he's bombarded on all sides by the people in his life. Iñárritu composes Birdman with a virtual single shot, stitched together from long Steadicam takes that help give the film its frantic anxiety. The camera follows behind Thomson as he navigates the narrow backstage halls between the stage and his dressing room. His manager (Zach Galifianakis) tries to get him more star power, his actress girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) tells him she's pregnant, and his daughter, Samantha (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab, won't let him forget he was a terrible father. Meanwhile, Mike lambasts Hollywood for its "cultural genocide" while noting "popularity is the slutty cousin of prestige."
All of these characters and ideas flood the screen in Birdman and the sensory overload does something unique. It gives the movie the feeling of more. Iñárritu obviously disapproves of the public's love of superhero films and big, pointless action sequences, but he can't help but insert some of this stuff to fuel the fire within Riggan. One scene even finds him walking through New York snapping his fingers making cars explode while a monstrous, CGI bird screeches down at him from above. It's in this world, Riggan seems home at last. He may yearn to be a real actor, but he can't deny the thrill of the blockbuster experience.
Birdman doesn't shy away from other complaints. Social media is eviscerated, through the character of Samantha, who sets up a Twitter account for her Dad after his show debuts. And Iñárritu saves a special role to take aim at the press. New York Times theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) tells Thomson, sight unseen, "I’m going to destroy your play." She hates Hollywood and everything the former superhero represents. It's a predictable character, the ruthless critic, and a severely outdated one—a rare misstep in an otherwise airtight script. But the Dickinson character plays a big part towards the end as Riggan's play debuts and becomes the talk of the famous city. Iñárritu saves his best act for last as Thomsen morphs into something new, yet familiar, a fitting end for an actor seeking acceptance in a film that defies the notion.