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.
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.
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.
“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.