The theatre, the theater, what’s happened to the theater?
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new film, [Birdman](movie:780317) or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), undertakes a satirical meta-analysis of theatrical performance. Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor past his prime, fighting to remain relevant and produce something meaningful by adapting Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” for the Broadway stage. As he does so, he faces the perils of a chaotic personal life, a volatile cast, and the voice of his past superstar self urging him to return to the blockbuster glory of his early years.
Edward Norton and Emma Stone match Keaton’s energy, playing the high-maintenance actor, Mike Shiner, and Thomson’s troubled daughter, Sam, respectively. We often see Thomson on his own, with the voices in his head and feelings of insignificance bearing down upon him, but the most memorable scenes include his interactions with the aforementioned costars.
Keaton and Norton feed off of each other’s frenzy, as their characters tussle over creative differences, leading to hilarious verbal and physical sparring. Stone’s Sam, meanwhile, steps in to deal heavy blows to Riggan’s psyche, reminding him of the superficiality of his acting and parenting performances.
Keaton’s performance is zany and electric and even worthy of Oscar attention, but director Iñárritu (Babel, Biutiful) and director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) steal the show.
The camera expertly follows the cast of Riggan’s show with long, tracking shots that never allow them to truly leave the stage and performance behind. Even as they shed their Broadway personas, the characters find themselves tossed between personal and professional problems, making the enclosing world of the theater inescapable. We get the sense that we are watching a play even after the curtain drops, glancing from face to face and from one hurried conversation to the next as the camera bounces back and forth between the show’s audience members.
Besides the innovative work behind the camera, the script breathes fiery life into the players. Iñárritu takes every chance to deride Hollywood, Broadway, and the construct of the actor. He cleverly juxtaposes theatre and theater, standing Thomson’s fading star against Shiner’s overzealous thespian. Thomson just wants to be happy after being “Hollywood miserable” for decades, and Shiner can only perform when onstage.
Shiner, along with Lindsay Duncan’s hostile theatre critic character, harp on the craft of acting and the ability to find the truth and meaning that can only classically-trained actors can possess. Riggan adamantly believes he can accomplish something of consequence with his play, yet each time he takes the stage, he leaves disappointed by the lack of emotional clout in his performance.
As the camera and script sink their teeth into pot shots at actors, acting, Hollywood, and the consumerist media, they also convey a familiar but nevertheless powerful message. Riggan, Mike, and those around them want ill-defined “truth,” passionately denouncing Hollywood’s ability to produce it while obsessing over awards. Instead, the meaningful moments of Birdman happen off-stage for the most part, except when Thomson brings reality to the spotlight himself.
Birdman is at one moment exuberantly fun and the next poignantly sardonic. Keaton and his supporting players expertly jump from being predictable and archetypal onstage to confused and relatable behind the scenes. They leave you unsure about the value of fame and performance, while making clear just how human their alter egos really are.