Birdman: A delirious, crazy showbiz comedy takes flight

You’ll believe a man can fly. Or you’ll believe that believing you can fly and flying are sort of the same thing. Either way, Alejandro González Iñárritu achieves takeoff in a big way with his crazy, freaky-deaky, hellza- poppin’ showbiz comedy Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). I certainly levitated with enjoyment. What is this? The Wings of Desire, as directed by Mel Brooks? 

At certain moments, watching it felt like inhaling laughing gas mixed with helium. And the technically extraordinary “flight” sequence looked very much like dreams of flying I’ve had myself.

Birdman is shot in one single take, without cuts (but with a few seamless digital sutures) and depicts the escalating anxiety attack being suffered by a failing movie star called Riggan Thomson, played with fiercely tender self-pity by Michael Keaton. Poor Riggan has haughtily abandoned the dumb superhero role of Birdman that made him rich and famous, and is now trying for credibility by starring in his own self-financed Broadway stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver story.

He has hired his lawyer buddy Jake (Zach Galifianakis) to produce, and his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) to be his personal assistant, in a pathetic attempt to make up for neglecting her in childhood while away shooting those hateful Birdman films — an abandonment that contributed to her drug issues.   

Divorced Riggan is now in a semi-covert relationship with co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who wants a baby; however, she also has a Sapphic tendresse for the show’s leading lady, Lesley (Naomi Watts), who must act opposite her own boyfriend, Mike Shiner, a hyperactive, narcissistic method-acting diva hilariously played by Edward Norton.

As opening night approaches, the pressure is causing Riggan to hallucinate, and he is visited by the granite-voiced figure of Birdman, the superhero monster he created, ordering him to forget the theatre and reclaim his chief superpower: making movie megabucks.

Plangent romantic seriousness  
It is a film that has been wildly hailed by the critics, despite depicting critics as fatuous, shallow, parasitic and prejudiced. At one stage, in an excitable impromptu casting discussion, Shiner’s own popularity with the critics is discussed: “They want to spooge on him! Right on his face!” As for Iñárritu, he’s getting the facial-spooge-tsunami he deserves, showing a glorious capacity for comedy I hadn’t suspected from his earlier, more solemn movies like 21 Grams, Babel or Biutiful. This does, however, finally display those movies’ tendency towards what I can only describe as plangent romantic seriousness.

Something in the jittery, crazy dialogue makes it sometimes hard to tell whether the characters are talking as themselves or performing the Carver dialogue. Riggan himself will roam the peeling, faintly nightmarish theatre corridors and burst out into the (genuine) crowded New York street — a bravura single-take staging in one unitary space that gives the movie the excitement of some experimental theatrical happening. And the unbroken take is weirdly reminiscent of first-person point-of-view movies like Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void or indeed Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake.

There is simply something disturbing in the unending, relentless single view. As the restless action unfolds, you’ll hear strange passages of music, orchestral swells or insistent nerve-jangling jazz drumming — music that may or may not be diegetic. Is Riggan using it as background music in the show? Can the characters hear it as well as us?

Every star’s worst nightmare 
And all the time, poor Riggan is approaching a mental breakdown because of the imminent critical and commercial catastrophe; and he can’t quite admit to himself that he is addicted to celebrity, though he is unsure how to renegotiate his declining position as a famous person in the alien new world of reality shows and social media.

Amusingly, he confesses to a horrendous status-anxiety episode while on a plane with George Clooney —like Clooney, Keaton himself played Batman in that pre-Nolan era when superheroes were not quite as ubi-quitous as they are now. Riggan doesn’t want to renounce his celebrity. He wants to upgrade it, improve it, make it classier. Deep in his heart, he prefers the acclaim of strangers to intimacy with his wife and daughter.

And there is a brilliant, farcical moment when he is locked out of the theatre just before needing to go on, and the only way to the stage is through the public front-of-house entrance. The situation is every star’s worst nightmare: having somehow to prove your importance and validate your existence from scratch.

Birdman is a delicious and delirious pleasure. — © Guardian News & Media 2015

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Peter Bradshaw
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