Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is so good, so profoundly entertaining, so confident that it makes you wonder whether the other Iñárritu — the director of such weighty magazine spreads as 21 Grams, Babel, and Biutiful — was a fraud all along. I mean, the fraudulence was on parade. The new movie is a parable of breaking out of the prison of artistic fraudulence and into some kind of personal truth. The explicit appearance of that word, truth, in art makes you nervous, especially when writers or directors are sure they’ve found it. But Birdman brings Iñárritu’s gifts into alignment with his subject.
I’ve never left one of his movies persuaded by any social or political argument (in brief, globalism crushes the human spirit). Iñárritu plays with time, space, and proportion to assert that the universe is rigged against us, whether one happens to be some well-off white American lady, her Mexican housekeeper, or an increasingly sick, increasingly impoverished Javier Bardem. What stands out in his work, though, is not spiritual death. It’s the dazzle of the chalk outline and how many cinematic and narrative devices were required to paint it.
Iñárritu’s talent has never been in doubt. It’s vertiginous. But until now, it hasn’t aligned with his moral vision, his sense that the world can be a miserable place and that movies have a responsibility to engage with suffering. His big, loud, deeply seductive style was all wrong for moralized depictions of death, tragedy, and the underclass. He was putting $400 jeans on a corpse. His movies were never as deep as he was desperate to make them out to be. Whenever he could pump up the volume, he’d blow out your eardrums with grotesque meaning. He didn’t want to break your heart. He wanted to blast it to smithereens. He has instincts for throbbing glamour. The best moments in his movies are kinetic, suspenseful, surrealist, or absurdist: the souls of dead Chinese sweatshop workers stuck to a factory ceiling in Biutiful, say, or anytime Iñárritu visits a disco.
Working with the masterful cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto for much of his career, Iñárritu has made movies about the hungry that make you want to eat, movies about the poor that make you want to buy, movies about sensory deprivation that make you want to dance. You can easily imagine the parody, the director saying, “OK, show me death! Great. Now, give me a little deprivation! I love it! Perfect!” Iñárritu’s style came off as self-importance, suggesting a kind of artistic insecurity that hasn’t afflicted his good friends and Mexican compatriots, Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro. It may not be that Iñárritu was too proud to make Gravity or Pacific Rim; it may be that he didn’t know how. But you really do leave something as brutalizing and emotionally preposterous as Babel thinking the person who directed it should have made a superhero comedy instead.
Birdman is as close as Iñárritu can bring himself to that — and he achieves it by inveighing against the superheroing of American mass entertainment. It lowers and turns the globalist stakes of a typical Iñárritu film inward. The subject is the self, the world is a stage, and the presentation — one long, illusory take guided by the rhythm of an all-drum jazz score — is a dream. Shedding that highly wrought, moralizing vision in favor of lightness better suits his style. Birdman is set in and around Broadway’s St. James Theater, home to a production of a play based on Raymond Carver’s story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Hearing one character say the play is a terrible idea is nice but probably unnecessary. From the minute the camera follows Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) from his dressing room to a rehearsal where you hear the earnestness the other actors have poured on the dialogue, you’re prepared for some kind of satire. The camera paces around Riggan and three other actors — Lesley (Naomi Watts), Laura (Andrea Riseborough), and Ralph (Jeremy Shamos) — until a light falls onto Ralph’s head and the movie becomes a farce.
Before the lamp strikes Ralph, the camera settles on Riggan staring up into the rafters. We think he’s bored, but he has willed the accident (Ralph sucks). The telekinesis is some secret side effect of Riggan’s years playing a superhero — the eponymous Birdman — in a couple of blockbusters. Those years are behind him, as are the height of his fame. He’s starring in, adapting, and directing this play as a way to reestablish himself as someone other than the guy who played the superhero, the superhero whose voice — a commanding, horrifically, hilariously, erotically deep baritone, almost a parody of manliness — continues to taunt him. That Keaton has agreed to subject himself to this particular X-ray of fame and its discontents heightens the extent to which Birdman is also a meta movie about Keaton’s fame, a consideration of the idea that being Batman warped not only his career but his sanity. It works because Iñárritu finds the right mix of heft and levity, ridiculousness and solemnity, so the movie never becomes the joke it’s trying to tell.
Down an actor, without much time before opening night, Riggan starts hunting for a replacement with his exasperated manager and producer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis). “What about Jeremy Renner?” says Jake. “Jeremy who?” says Riggan. The other names they volley are locked up in Hollywood franchises. “He’s doing The Hunger Games … He’s doing the X-Men … He’s an Avenger.” Lesley suggests Mike, a respected, pricey stage actor played by Edward Norton (who, of course, made a notorious outing as the Incredible Hulk and was replaced as though he never existed). Mike comes aboard and infects the production with his libido, egotism, and pretentiousness. He hits on Riggan’s daughter and personal assistant, Sam (Emma Stone). He insists that every onstage moment be “real.” During previews, he drinks actual gin and wants to have real sex with an appalled Lesley. The character is as much a spoof of Method acting and ego trips as most acting spoofs are. Norton happens to be a smart actor — one who could be mocking his own integrity. When he stands onstage lecturing Riggan about Geraldine Page and Helen Hayes and Jason Robards, he makes it a laugh line, but when he sits down at the play’s kitchen table and actually acts out a scene, Riggan is blown away. The brilliance of Norton here — of Norton in most of his best work — is a kind of casual virtuosity. It can veer into arrogance (he’s too good for most of the stuff he’s done). But Birdman encourages him to veer. Mike is so good and so hard to direct that Riggan suspects that he’s going to steal the show. You suspect that Norton’s going to do the same to Keaton and this movie.
Every once in a while, I’ll wonder what happened to certain actors. What sent them south, what turned us off, who came along and was better at doing what they did? Keaton’s demise provoked those kinds of questions. He was manically funny, intense, cracklingly smart, and a weird kind of sexy. He made for an idiosyncratic Batman. His rhythms were offbeat (he was working with peak Tim Burton, which helped). He seemed to play the part as two different men. That may be what the other guys in masks and capes were also going for, but Keaton was the one I believed. In such movies as My Life from 1993 or The Paper from the following year, though, Keaton was righteous and self-pitying. He was likable, yet needed too much to be liked. It was only when he played crazy — in Beetlejuice and Pacific Heights and Desperate Measures — that he seemed free of neediness. By the late 1990s, he’d come to seem secondary, showing up in supporting roles, often as cops. But in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown or The Other Guys or his self-parodic Ken doll in Toy Story 3, you’d get a flash of his old vitality and miss him.
Birdman, whose script is credited to Iñárritu and three other writers, is about the idea of a Michael Keaton, an actor ossified — in the minds of some — as this one character. It’s a project different from what Tarantino did for Pam Grier in Jackie Brown or what Mabrouk El Mechri did for Jean-Claude Van Damme in JCVD. It’s closer to what Steven Soderbergh had in mind for Terence Stamp in The Limey: something neither robustly nostalgic nor backhandedly worshipful. Birdman contains a few microscopic jokes about, say, Keaton’s receding hairline, but the movie presents Keaton as a great talent who fell between the cracks of the very ground he broke, who was the first version of a George Clooney or a Robert Downey Jr. He was a kind of pioneer of Hollywood movie monoculture (you’re no one without a franchise now!) and a casualty of it (should he have stopped playing Batman?).
You’re worried that Birdman won’t let Keaton become more than a martyr, that he won’t be able to stay in on the joke, that the comedy will get away from him, that Norton really is going to steal this movie. But Riggan gives Keaton enough to play. He’s shallow, selfish, self-loathing, bitter, and needy. He’s what I’m sure Iñárritu thinks is a kind of Fellini hero — a voluptuous mess of a man in a backstage circus, being orbited by exasperated and adoring women. Riggan’s daughter, Sam, is a recovering addict who gives him angry lectures and affectionate speeches. There’s the imperiously snooty New York Times theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) who promises to write a review that closes the show. When Riggan’s ex-wife (Amy Ryan) stops by his dressing room before a preview, looking ethereal, the movie feels even more like a dream than it already is. But Riggan’s comic narcissism punctures her moony fondness. What did she ever see in him? And what about Riseborough’s Laura, who might be pregnant with Riggan’s baby? Not that far into things, amid the personnel chaos, Riseborough backs away from Keaton, up a set of stairs and out a door, with a look of romantic hunger that’s one of the happiest sights in Birdman. As proof of Keaton’s gravitational pull, whenever one of these women, usually Stone, is alone with Norton, the movie ceases to glide.
You sometimes wish the movie could rest a little longer on Watts. She and Riseborough have one of the best exchanges in the movie. They’re sitting in Lesley’s dressing room, and Watts is covered in fake blood, asking, “Why don’t I ever have any self-respect?” Riseborough’s perfectly timed response got a big laugh both times I saw the movie. You wish the camera would spend more time at Watts’s back or gazing into her rueful face. Riseborough and especially Stone are given just enough to work with. But Watts is the kind of actress for whom just enough won’t cut it. While the camera is following Keaton and Norton, you fear that a wonderful performance is going to waste in another corridor or room.
In a manner not dissimilar from the way Darren Aronofsky made Black Swan a critique of artistic perfection, Iñárritu is taking Fellini’s full-figured personal comedies and slimming them down to ask modern questions about the nature of culture. Are Mike and that woman from the Times right? Does a beached movie star have any business putting on such an embarrassing-looking play? Why make an $18 million movie when you can go viral for free? Is social media really what gives a person clout? These are not deep questions. They might not even be very interesting questions. And this is not the film to look to for answers — well, for clear answers. “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige,” says Mike. It’s a line that’s funnier as poetry than it is sensical as truth. Later, Sam says to Riggan, “Believe it or not, this is power,” holding up her cell phone that’s playing a viral video of her father from earlier in the evening. It’s as if she’s showing a caveman electricity.
Ultimately, the only thing this movie is about is Iñárritu’s virtuosity. Birdman is so self-consciously, self-reflexively controlled that you’re shocked that the roving camerawork doesn’t happen upon the source of the soundtrack’s jazzy kick drum spasms and snare spanks — and then suddenly, sure enough, there’s a shot of Nate Smith playing Antonio Sanchez’s score on a kit in the theater. The pacing of these scenes is perfect, following the rhythms of the music. For the first half of the movie, the antic motion rarely stops, and the maneuvering around corners and up stairs and between actors (there are noticeable, tiny parts for Merritt Wever and Benjamin Kanes) gives you a kind of high, like you’re at an amusement park. After Amores Perros, Iñárritu’s first and still his most pungent, most raw film, the director was presiding over dreary carnivals. But for once the high doesn’t make you nauseated. The scenes in Birdman have a new quality: breakneck serenity. Some of this — perhaps a lot of it — is due to the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki. The camera roves and floats into rooms and down hallways.
At some point, it rests at an intersection inside the theater, staring down a corridor, waiting (hoping?) for someone to pass into view. When activity is spied, the camera drifts in that direction. It looks skyward, as night turns to day, and it lowers itself like an elevator, from the rafters to the stage, from the roof of the St. James to 44th Street below. Lubezki, Iñárritu, and the actors make it all look easy. They manage to do it without it overwhelming you, the way too many “great” tracking shots do. The darkened trips through doorways are cues to breathe.
Borrowing the great Lubezki from Cuarón, for whom Lubezki shot Children of Men and Gravity, is a signal that Iñárritu is changing gears, that he wants to compete with his friends, to make their kinds of movies: fun ones. To that end, Birdman builds toward a distinctly surrealist climax, in which Riggan’s alter ego starts to cannibalize his reality. His insecurities feel like Iñárritu’s, regarding what kind of director he is versus the kind of director he thinks he ought to be. (He has even changed his name for this movie: It’s Alejandro G. Iñárritu!) His sense of morality is saying he’s Satyajit Ray. His energy and immense talent for stunt craft are saying he’s an even better Michael Bay.
That struggle at the finale, the struggle between the fraud you perpetrate and the particular kind of artist you truly are, gives the movie a lot of its power. Birdman comes with a subtitle — The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance — that feels as much about Iñárritu’s delusions as about Riggan’s. (It also gives the movie its admittedly absurd metaphysical punch line.) Before a tussle with Riggan, Mike rises from the tanning bed he’s had installed at the theater, holding a copy of Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths. The Borges allusion is not accidental. It feels more right than the reaching for Fellini and Carver. Borges was a magician fond of repetition and warping time, of dreams nesting within dreams, of fakery as an expedient path to truth. He liked the ironic outcomes of grim struggles, the comedy of accepting what has always been.
An undertow of determinism is always apparent in Iñárritu’s work. This is the first of his films since Amores Perros to reconsider the ecstasies (however limited) of some sort of free will. As a satire, Birdman isn’t as mordant as Robert Altman, John Waters, or David Cronenberg’s mockeries of the film industry. Those are outsider directors who never wanted in. Iñárritu has made a big, showy Hollywood entertainment that’s as much about himself and his ego as about anything else. Now, at 51, he’s comfortable with the admission that he has always been the superhero of these movies.
This article has been updated to reflect that Nate Smith, not Brian Blade, appears as a drummer in Birdman.