Riggin Thomson (Michael Keaton), who long ago played the movie superhero Birdman but now is struggling to be taken seriously as a New York stage actor, listens to the old comic-book voice in his head and miraculously takes flight on a Broadway side street. “There you go, motherf---er,” the Birdman voice growls triumphantly. “Gravity doesn’t apply to you.”
It does apply, a little, to Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), the odd and oddly punctuated title of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s new comedy-fantasy that opens the 2014 Venice Film Festival tonight. Last year’s Venice opener was Gravity, directed and co-written by Iñárritu’s Mexican amigo Alfonso Cuarón, and photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki in sumptuous long takes, including the astounding 13-minute first shot. The director and his cinematographer both earned Oscars for their work, but the challenge they set for themselves was almost child’s play compared with the game that Iñárritu and Lubezki play here: to make virtually the whole movie look as if it were realized in one two-hour take.
Gravity upped its degree of difficulty with a cast of two (make that one). Birdman, which takes place in the week or so leading up to the opening of Riggin’s Broadway debut in an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” has seven major characters running and snarling through the caverns of the St. James Theatre: Riggin and his costars Lesley (Naomi Watts), Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and Mike (Edward Norton), plus Riggin’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) and manager Jake (Zach Galifianakis). An eighth, the corrosive Times critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), waits for opening night to pounce on Riggin and write a review that would kill his play, because its success would underline Hollywood’s dark power over immaculate, endangered Broadway.
In his first bloom, when he was known as Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director collaborated with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga on three features —Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel — that wove a dozen or more fates, interlocking across a city or around the world. In Birdman , written by Iñárritu, the Argentinians Nicolas Giacobone and Armando Bo and New York playwright Alexander Dinelaris Jr., all the characters are cramped together inside the St. James, or wandering a block or two outside, united by space but separated by their individual needs. As theater creates an impromptu family of brilliant invalids, Birdman brings that theatrical unity to movies, which usually have 600 to 1,000 shots.
No question that Birdman is a breathtaking technical achievement, not a stunt. Shot in 30 days after a long rehearsal period, with the actors’ and the camera’s movements calibrated to the inch and the millisecond so the action flows smoothly, the picture has the jagged energy of a long guerrilla raid choreographed by Bob Fosse. In Gravity, Cuarón worked wonders with a solitary Sandra Bullock and the green screen behind her. Birdman has the aspect of naturalism: scenes lasting 10 minutes or more (edited together with invisible transitions) demand that a couple dozen performers and technicians all be in perfect synch. It’s a precision ballet whose most impressive effect is that it plays out like real theatrical life.
That life echoes other backstage dramas. The rivalry of Riggin and Mike suggests a man’s-world All About Eve. Charlie Kaufman’s insanely ambitious Synecdoche, New York investigated the same notion that the agony of putting on a show can seem like a military siege or a fatal sickness. For the movie versions of the creative and personal pressures, from actors, producers and ex-wives, that lead their directors to the brink of suicide, look no further than Federico Fellini’s 8-1/2 and Fosse’s All That Jazz. (Albert Wolsky, who created the costumes for All That Jazz, is on board here; he designed everything but the scaly, superb Birdman costume, which was the work of Mike Elizalde.)
And like any clever inside-showbiz satire, Birdman exploits its stars’ biographies. A quarter-century ago, Keaton segued from the title role of the demon in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice to the caped crusader in Burton’s two Batman movies, before leaving the Caped Crusader for a somewhat diminished career as a character actor. Norton, making the most of his gaudy role as a crazy-great stage actor, may dismiss popularity as “the slutty little cousin of prestige,” but he did a turn as Marvel’s Incredible Hulk; and Stone is fresh off two installments of The Amazing Spider-Man. Riggin has a nightmare in which he’s on a flight with George Clooney (a later Batman, as well as Bullock’s Gravity costar), and after the plane crashes the headlines mention only Clooney. Riggin’s nagging Birdman alter ego also dismisses the Iron Man work of Robert Downey Jr., saying, “That clown doesn’t have half your talent, and he’s making a fortune in that Tin Man outfit.”
That attitude could be Riggin’s sour grapes — the snobbery-envy of serious actors who aren’t in superhero movies toward the serious actors who are. But it fits with his decades-behind-the-curve view of all things digital. His neglected daughter Sam, just out of rehab and helping Riggin with the show, tells him, “You hate bloggers, you’re scared of Twitter, you don't even have a Facebook page. You Don’t Exist.” In Birdman’s skewed comic vision, Riggin can succeed only by outlandish public embarrassment: a walk through Times Square clad only in his underpants, which gets him 300,000 social-media views in an hour, or a more explosive accident onstage.
Through Riggin’s eyes, the movie sees journalists as parasites, either pompous (quoting Roland Barthes) or gossipy (asking the actor to comment on an online report that he uses baby pig semen as a youthening agent). He agrees with Flaubert’s comment that “A man becomes a critic when he cannot be an artist, as a man becomes an informant when he cannot be a soldier.” His biases are justified when the Times critic warns him she’ll be showing up on opening night to eviscerate the production. (Flash: Theater critics see plays a day or more before the official premiere, so their reviews can appear on opening night. And they would be fired if their bosses learned they had threatened an actor with a pan, especially before seeing his play.)
When not focusing on Riggin, Birdman admits for some cogent backstage alliances and dalliances. Norton’s Mike can come to erotic life only when on stage, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend, Watts’s Lesley. (“You can’t get it up for six months, and now you want to f--- me in front of 800 strangers?”) Later he plays a sexy round of Truth or Dare with Sam on the roof of the St. James. Lesley also gets a brief bond when Laura suddenly kisses her. “What are you doing?” she asks, and Laura shrugs, “Nothing.” Lesley says, “Do it again.” The movie is full of little nothings that can add up to something special.
That something starts with Keaton. Now 62, his face crisscrossed with lifelines, the actor uses the weariness of age more than his manic Beetlejuice energy. His Riggin, playing a Carver character that he calls “a deranged, deformed version of myself” (even as Riggin is of Keaton), seems ready to sag into defeat, not ascend into madness. Yet the star’s performance is the compass that guides all the actors who must play off him in their fiendishly compressed and extended moments. Birdman represents not just Keaton’s fictional apologia but also his defiant, nearly heroic comeback.
Finally, the Gravity comparison is unfair. The Cuarón film launched audiences into a stratosphere of emotions; Birdman is grounded by everyday worries. It’s a comedy, after all — one that takes its ex-hero’s career and personal anxieties and makes them fly high.