Birdman (2014): Inarritu’s Best Film (So Far) with Oscar Caliber Performances from Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, and Naomi Watts

Alejandro G. Innaritu’s most original, most ambitious, and most fully realized film to date, “Birdman: or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,” announces a great comeback performance of lead actor Michael Keaton, which immediately establishes him as a serious contender in this year’s race for the Best Actor Oscar.

The sharp script, which is replete with poignant observations about fame achievement and American pop culture, is co-written by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo.

A witty satire of that seductive milieu known as showbiz–in this tale, both the stage and the screen worlds–“Birdman” dwarfs other similar efforts to critique or poke fun at instant fame and celebrity status, including “Maps to the Stars” by David Cronenberg, which world premiered in the Cannes Film Fest.

The ever-entrepreneurial Fox Searchlight has a winner with “Birdman,” which plays is all the fall film fests, including Toronto and New York Film Fest (as closing night) before opening October 17 stateside.  With the right handling and marketing, for which Searchlight is known for, “Birdman” could easily cross the art-house world and have legs through the holiday and awards season.

birdman_12_inarritu_keaton_nortonLike his Mexican compatriots, Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro, Innaritu refuses to be typecast as a director, and each of his five films (beginning with Amores Peros in 2000, is defined by a different narrative and aesthetic sensibility.

Last year, Venice Film Fest opens with Cuaron’s “Gravity,” which went on to win five Oscar Awards and Best Picture nomination, and this year the Lido was lucky enough to grab Innaritu’s picture as opener. If our reading of the film and its initial critical response are valid, Birdman emerges as a strong contender in the upcoming Oscar race.

birdman_11_inarritu_keaton_nortonIt’s probably a subject for anther essay, but it’s hard to think of another importation by Hollywood of foreign directors of another national cinema—Mexican in this case—that has had such a profound effect on the industry, one that lets the directors express themselves artistically without any (or very limited) interference.  One would have to go back to the 1920s, when Hollywood invited a group of talented German directors, including Lubitsch and Murnau.

The best compliment I can pay “Birdman” is to say that the late Billy Wilder, who made the 1950s noir classic, “Sunset Boulevard,” would have liked it, even if the pictures are vastly different. Both films are darkly humorous and subversive, implicitly and explicitly, on the text and subtext levels. There are also strange and scary similarities between Norma Desmond, the part that Gloria Swanson immortalized, and Riggan, the part played by Michael Keaton, suggesting that regardless of age and gender, all performers are inherently insecure–perhaps mentally unstable, too.

birdman_10_inarritu_norton_stoneIt’s impossible to watch “Birdman,” a highly self-reflexive and self-conscious feature, without recalling Michael Keaton’s career over the past three decades from his silly comedies (Mr. Mom) to romantic turns, and especially his breakthrough role in “Batman,” the 1989 Tim Burton’s comic strip that launched a new era in Hollywood.

Perfectly cast, Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an insecure, unstable, twisty and twisted actor-star-celeb whose definitive role as a superhero called Birdman cast a spell over his identity and career, making it all but impossible to move onto other kinds of films.

birdman_9_inarritu_keatonLike other narcissistic stars, Riggan’s screen image is also shaped by his real life off-screen, even if viewers know little about his personal life, joys, and sorrows, phobias and strengths.

In what’s an ominous sign, Riggan, having seen a dying star, is first observed sitting in his dressing room backstage on the day before previews begin for his next big production. For his Broadway debut, Riggan has chosen a story by Raymond Carver, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” tailoring and adjusting it to fit his selfish needs to be acknowledged and admired.

With the play’s opening night looming, Riggan’s lead actor is injured by a freak accident during rehearsals and needs to be replaced quickly. At the suggestion of lead actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) and the urging of his best friend and producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), Riggan reluctantly hires Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), loose cannon that is guaranteed to sell tickets and increase chances for the play to get a rave review in the N.Y. Times.

birdman_8_inarritu_keaton_watts_galifianakisAs he prepares for the stage debut, he must deal with his girlfriend and co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough), his fresh-from-rehab daughter and personal assistant Sam (Emma Stone), as well as his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), who appears every so often to check-in with the intent to stabilize things.

Riggan hopes that by spearheading an ambitious new Broadway play he will, among other things, revive his moribund career. In one of several poignant scenes with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), she reminds him that his new play has no meaning for cohorts of her generation.

Riggan’s ambition is a deeply foolhardy move, based on both illusion and delusion: The former superhero has high hopes that this creative gambit will legitimize him as an artist and prove to everyone, including and especially himself, that he is not just a Hollywood has-been, or a manufactured commodity.

birdman_7_inarritu_keaton_stoneAs a satire, “Birdman” contains inside-jokes and is replete with references to the worlds of music, theater, film, even criticism (though it’s the only aspect that Innaritu and his team do not get right).  When a member of the cast needs to be quickly replaced, Riggan’s friend Jake conveys the bad news that their choice is very narrow, as Woody Harrelson is doing another “Hunger Games,” Michael Fassbender another “X-Men,” and Robert Downey Jr. another “Iron Man.”

Listening to this line of dialogue, we inevitably think of the backgrounds and moves (good and bad) of the actors in “Birdman”:  Michael Keaton as the performer who launched the comic-strip spectacle era with the first two “Batman” movies (directed by Tim Burton); Edward Norton’s appearance in the mediocre “The Incredible Hulk”; Emma Stone as the love interest in the new reboot of “Spider Man.”

In a moribund conversation with his former wife, Riggan reminds her that “Farrah Fawcett died on exactly the same day as Michael Jackson,” which could be interpreted in several different ways.  Is Riggan concerned about his eclipse, or perhaps fear that his demise would occur on a day in which another celeb dies, or another showbiz event occurs.

birdman_6_inarritu_keatonThe brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who finally won the Oscar last year for “Gravity,” applies his distinctive visual strategy—unusually long, uninterrupted takes by standards of mainstream Hollywood—to this film.

The extended, intuitive, unbroken nature of these shots, accomplished via Steadicam and hand-held cameras meant that the lighting was not done with the traditional equipment. The blocking and dialogue were precisely timed with the camera movement.

As a result, Birdman takes place not in a movie set, but in a real theater, the locale of most of the plot, allowing audiences the time to observe, if not fully absorb at first viewing, the details of the dense ambience and rigorous mis-en-scene.