Latest update: Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel are going toe-to-toe at the Oscars! Both films are leading with nine nominations each.
Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (real full title, guys), is a loaded piece of cinema, even from the start. It begins with a ball of fire falling spectacularly out of the sky and before it crashes to earth, the film cuts to our – ahem – hero Riggan Thomson. Riggan is a washed out former Hollywood superstar who once headlined a popular superhero franchise entitled Birdman, and is presently meditating in his dressing room at St. James Theatre in Times Square, New York City. This reference to Icarus, perhaps the “original bird man” and that age-old Greek parable about hubris and the inevitable downfall, is a pervasive theme of the film.
He sits peacefully Buddha-like as if everything is fine and normal except that – hold up! – he is floating in midair. This nudge-and-wink moment of magic realism would be the first of many throughout the film, an early visual cue of our hero’s tendency to go on flights of fantasy and unravel, mentally. “How did we end up here?” A gravelly voiceover asks rhetorically. “This place is horrible. Smells like balls.” And the action unfolds in what looks like a seamless single take. This is no Russian Ark (2002), an epic 99-minute European film actually shot in a single take, but for some of the sequences in Birdman, the camera ran continuously for as long as 20 minutes.
So we’ve got symbolism, an intertextual reference to the classics and lines laced with existential undertones and we’re not even three minutes into the movie! Such is Iñárritu’s masterful hand at creating layered stories.
Birdman is a film about a play. In an attempt to revive his credibility as an actor and become relevant again, Riggan sets out to write, direct and star in a stage adaptation of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a short story by Raymond Carver. In the few days leading up to the play’s premiere, he has to deal with the ruthless press, diva co-workers namely renowned stage actor Mike Shiner (wonderfully played by Edward Norton), his disgruntled daughter Sam (Emma Stone) who just got out of rehab, a high-strung friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) and his own personal demons, which often manifest in the form of the character he played in his old glory days, Birdman.
To me, every strategic creative decision Iñárritu made hit the mark and best of all, they don’t feel contrived. The casting, for instance, is genius – from Keaton’s involvement (how meta! We haven’t forgotten that he too once donned the cape and cowl to portray Gotham’s dark knight), to giving Stone a role that allows her to flex her muscles beyond being America’s Sweetheart, to getting Norton to perhaps ironically play himself.
And to keep up the illusion that the action runs continuously without cuts also serves the thematic purpose of the film. For one, it feels like we’re watching a play. And more importantly, we are aligned with Riggan’s mental and emotional state, where the pressure to deliver is palpable and unending. To maintain this approach, Riggan’s vivid hallucinations are seamlessly worked into the action (refer to magic realism above) and the line between internal and external landscapes are blurred or rather erased altogether! Perhaps this is what it’s like to become unhinged, and it gives the film its Fellini-esque flavour. Though it has to be said that Federico Fellini’s 8½ (1963) is still the best film about having a nervous breakdown.
Sounds tedious or heavy-handed, doesn’t it? But in spite of the meaty narrative, the mood is largely buoyant – the pace is smooth, and the repartee between characters genuinely funny. In response to Riggan’s remark about the benefits of being a popular actor, Mike condescendingly quips: “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.”
Yes, the great reveal here is that Iñárritu actually has a sense of humour! Those familiar with the auteur’s previous films like the somber Babel (2006) and the gut wrenching Biutiful (2010), know what I’m talking about.
But I guess it wouldn’t exactly be a proper Iñárritu film without SOME angst and melancholy musings. The strained relationship between Riggan and Sam stood out for me because I am a sucker for emotionally-driven father-daughter side plots, being a daddy’s girl myself. An aside: The one in Interstellar got to me too!
But this is where Iñárritu strikes a perfect balance and made an effective film: The light, funny moments are genuinely hilarious and the sad ones are deeply moving. Such is the bittersweet nature of life, isn’t it? And before I wax philosophical, I just want to tell you that you MUST catch this brilliant film if you haven’t already.
Birdman is out in cinemas now. If you’ve seen it, we’d love to hear your thoughts on it below!