It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane…Actually, It’s BIRDMAN

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By Alec Julian & Carrie White

Perhaps the oddest thing about Alejandro González Iñárritu’s chimerical, meta dark comedy – about an over-the-hill celebrity trying to resurrect himself on Broadway – is that it was conceived and realized by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Best known for ambitious, overwrought hyperlink features, such as AMORES PERROS and BABEL, Iñárritu has remained tonally in the bleak zone. Even BIUTIFUL, which deviated from his multilinear formula, remained a sober examination of ordinary life. Therefore, the Raymond Carver short stories, which serve as source material for the play within this movie, are the closest BIRDMAN comes to being like Iñárritu’s previous efforts. Otherwise, it’s a pastiche that could have floated out of a Charlie Kaufman workshop.

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Success is a double edged sword: Failure to live up to his former fame haunts the self-loathing Riggan.

Irrelevant since 1992, when he quit making superhero flicks by the talons of which he gained his fame, the hero of the story is Riggan, a divorced Hollywood has-been. Now, in 2014, when his name is simply “an answer to a Trivial Pursuit question,” Riggan tries to resuscitate his career by refinancing his Malibu mansion in order to produce, direct, and star in a Broadway play. His daughter-cum-assistant (Emma Stone, whose casting is perfect, given her role in the Spiderman franchise) is an unstable recovering drug addict. She becomes interested in a mercurial stage actor (Edward Norton) whose attachment to Riggan’s project is as risky as the production itself. And Riggan has a secret: he is not just a superhero in the movies, he can actually fly and he has telekinetic superpowers.

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Egotistic, Riggan is chastised for “confusing love with admiration.” Equally insecure, however, Riggan’s motto, pasted on his mirror, reads: “A thing is a thing. It is not what is said of that thing.”

Thus BIRDMAN proceeds as a self-reflexive meditation on the paradox of acting. Actors get lost in their roles, which are reinforced by fans and media, and in turn lose touch with reality until they reenact those roles, fueling megalomania. Throughout the film, Riggan’s chastened by an inner voice, presumably his cinematic alter ego, which berates him and simultaneously encourages him with its vituperation. Norton’s character, Mike Shiner, although suffering from erectile dysfunction in real life, has no issue getting an erection during a provocative bed scene in front of a five hundred-person audience.

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As clever as the writing is, BIRDMAN’s greatest asset is its visual style, which is indebted to Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki (GRAVITY, CHILDREN OF MEN), in whose capable hands the movie appears to take place in a single, marvelous continuous take.

“Popularity is the slutty cousin of prestige,” quips Mike Shiner. Often making hilarious reference to the celebrity-industrial complex, BIRDMAN sometimes seems like a criticism of tent-pole cinema, self-congratulatory awards shows, and the idea that worth can measured by a movie’s weekend gross. Yet, such criticism goes both ways. Riggan confronts a theatre critic, castigating her for categorizing art obtusely at no cost to her. Apropos of that, BIRDMAN ultimately refuses to be pinned down, elusively evading a Hollywood ending…and a typical Iñárritu one.


Carrie White is the best-selling author of Upper Cut: Highlights of My Hollywood Life. She tweets @carriewhitehair. 

Alec Julian is a Los Angeles based writer. Follow him @PaparazziPorn. 

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One thought on “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane…Actually, It’s BIRDMAN

  1. A nicely stated, easily understood dissection of this fine film. Carrie White! But, of course. Her book “Upper Cut” is an equally good read!

    The premise of “Birdman” made me recall a minor film from about fifteen years ago, “Bar Hopping.” I believe that John Travolta oversaw this film which featured among others, Kevin Nealon, Nicole Sullivan, Kelly Preston, Sally Kellerman and Tom Arnold. But the film was “taken home” with the help of an actor who was playing a Hollywood has been not unlike Riggan in “Birdman; ” not only almost forgotten, but embarrassingly best remembered by having co-starred with a dog, and it was the dog that everyone remembered. The character was played by the well-liked actor Robert Hegyes of Welcome Back Kotter fame. It was great casting I thought, as nearly twenty years had passed since his character in that show, Juan Epstein (and his mother’s notes to teacher Gabe Kaplan) provided America with many weeknight laughs. And here was Hegyes those years later playing a character not unlike his real life persona. In “Bar Hopping” his character lashes out in anger over events that had destroyed the world he’d known.

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