I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting to like Birdman. I’ll run through the previous films of its director, Alejandro González Iñárritu: Amores perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful. The conventional wisdom goes like this: “Well, Amores perros was cool and inventive, but man don’t the rest of these make me wanna blow my brains out?” I shared this conventional wisdom, though please note that each of these titles holds a positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (Our memories are selective.) Finding his more self-serious, moribund, and preachy than their immediate predecessor, I’d grown incrementally weary, to the point where I avoided Biutiful altogether. As a sample of what I’m likely missing, Michael Phillips’ review of Biutiful began by asking, “[w]hen is ‘too much’ just right?” More and more, Iñárritu was exchanging self-seriousness for self-parody, his efforts at introspection and philosophy transformed unwillingly into selfish and ultimately shallow attempts at epic filmmaking. Amores perros was the only film on his résumé with any lightness of touch or any sense of humor, until now. With Birdman, Iñárritu has deftly taken criticism but maintained independence of thought, using comedy and the magic realist tradition of his native Latin America to transcend the suffocating results of his previous melodramas.
Birdman is timely, positioned as we are on the precipice of a paradigm shift in Hollywood. Perhaps that shift is already complete. As Mark Harris recently noted, superhero movies aren’t just the future of movies, they are the movies, constituting an increasing share of the major studios’ output as the studios themselves continue contracting the number of films they produce annually. One wonders if we’ll tire of this trend before the 2019 releases of Avengers: Infinity War – Part II, Justice League Part Two, and Shazam!, but by then it might be too late. Paradigm shifts don’t occur overnight, and reversing them might take even longer.
Riggan Thompson, Birdman‘s protagonist, had a reason to fatigue of the superhero trend long before an Iron Man franchise was a glimmer in the eyes of Robert Downey, Jr. and Jon Favreau. Riggan had the shrewdness to anticipate the fad by a couple decades, starring as the eponymous Birdman in a prior trilogy, but the misfortune both to cash out before the returns skyrocketed and to have too many wrinkles and too flabby a stomach to capitalize on the current demand. I’d fear a Birdman 4 would sooner pay Riggan a relative pittance for a brief cameo than put him back in a suit and at the head of the bill. To reclaim his artistic credibility, Riggan has staked his dwindling fortune on staging his adaptation of a play adapted from Raymond Carver, basically the opposite of what he’s known for. Michael Keaton plays Riggan, in a brilliant touch of meta-casting. Downey, now our highest-paid actor, could afford to present an infinite number of passion projects. Keaton, having seen his Batman films rewritten and with fewer starring roles, and by extension Riggan, believably might have more to lose even though they’ve got comparatively fewer dollars to invest. What if we’ve moved on?
Keaton is definitely underappreciated, and hopefully Birdman helps us remember what he brings as an actor. As the self-appointed greatest promoter of the film Jackie Brown, I’ll turn there for a little insight:
Keaton is full of potential energy, antsy, unable to sit still, unable to focus his eyes. And like a coiled spring, given to short bursts and blow-ups before reverting back to that same edginess, liable to blow up again thirty seconds later. Iñárritu uses Riggan’s stress as a delivery device for Keaton’s abilities as Keaton’s restlessness is usually so ridiculous as to be pretty damn funny. Conversations become brawls at a moment’s notice, a father-daughter chat a battle of wills. If anything the film errs on Riggan losing his cool on too few occasions. Though the filmmakers wrote Riggan as sullen and self-flagellating, it does channel Keaton’s energy to fit the comic beats it wants to hit. It also helps that other actors who have shown a gift for timing (Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton) are cast, and the deliberately long takes provide a convincing illusion of spontaneity and improvisation by which Birdman instantly becomes Iñárritu’s funniest endeavor.
I think the casting is one indication of an awareness previously lacking from Iñárritu’s films. One might notice that some of these comic actors have appeared in superhero movies, too. And surely Iñárritu is aware of his own opinions on superhero movies, labeling them a “cultural genocide,” an epithet Norton’s character also hurls in the film. The omnipotence of the superhero paradigm is fodder for some of Birdman‘s laughs, as when Riggan needs an immediate placement for his play’s second male lead, but Downey, Woody Harrelson, and Jeremy Renner are all unavailable. You know why they’re busy.
Critically, though, Iñárritu is aware of his own reputation, however warranted. The film portrays the New York Times film critic as a jealous and pretentious crank, yearning for bullshit like “super-realism” and exalting The Theatre as an elitist shibboleth. With this character, Iñárritu manages to take a shot at critics but satirize high-minded artistry. The joke is not vengeful but clever. The Iñárritu who directed the previous movies would’ve constructed a critic who lambasted Serious Films while betraying ignorance at what those Serious Films conveyed rather than a critic who disregarded a washed-up star in a perceived attempt to grovel for respectability. Iñárritu himself seems to recognize his moment of reinvention, credited as “Alejandro G. Iñárritu” rather than his full name, it being common for individuals with Spanish surnames to use both or the first surname, rather than the second alone. (Naming custom is for the father’s surname to come first.)
Now, we have Iñárritu wondering aloud, through Riggan, whether movies that make money and entertain a bunch of people are so bad. What matters is less the means to make yourself happy and more that very result. Happiness often comes from doing work you care about, and debasing yourself in a cape and logo and the hubris of adapting Raymond Carver represent extremes by which happiness is more difficult, but not impossible, to achieve. A useful representation from the movie is Naomi Watts’ character, making her debut on Broadway, and who’s just thrilled to be included, even during moments when the play’s opening is in jeopardy. The feeling of gratitude is one her more veteran colleagues have forgotten or have resigned to not pursue.
The film mirrors this mindfulness with its astute use of magic realist touches, honoring the literary tradition most associated with Iñárritu’s region of origin while allowing Iñárritu to ask questions without shoving answers down our throats. The genius of the best works of magic realism is in their grounding supernatural and fantastical flourishes in a very specific representation of the present and the political and social problems that afflict it. Hence, when Riggan appears to deploy certain extraordinary powers, we’re cognizant of the real-world context and milieu in which he’s using them.
Rather than confusing, magic realism should be liberating. I wouldn’t focus too much on whether Riggan actually possesses these powers, though the film explains in several BUT NOT ALL instances, including some before the final scene (a detail that has been missed in several reviews), that Riggan is imagining them, but instead on Riggan’s belief that he possesses them. The ironic fact of Riggan’s belief (including his communication with a physical Birdman that apparently exists only in his head) has two consequences. First, it’s funny, especially when the film reveals that Riggan’s acts have a much more logical and lame explanation. Second, it helps Riggan and us try for a greater level of understanding, through questioning our own likes, dislikes, hopes, and regrets. But this questioning is not esoteric because we understand most of the rules and facts governing this fictitious world. Sure, many of Riggan’s powers may not exist, but the chance that they might is less abstract because we hear the characters namecheck actual actors, watch them perform on an actual stage on which we can see a Broadway production, and hail cabs on the same streets we would.
By emphasizing questions, Iñárritu backs away from the moral certitude of his previous work and from one of the extremes that Birdman targets. You might’ve heard that most of the film is designed to appear as one consecutive take. (Hey, another magic realist touch!) That many of these shots of narrow hallways recall movies as tonally disparate as The Shining and Ghostbusters shows that Iñárritu is capable of using his tools to occupy a much more palatable middle ground.