By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 1, 2014)
One of my favorite movies is the 1957 “show-biz noir”, The Sweet Smell of Success, Alexander Mackendrick’s portrait of an influential New York newspaper columnist (Burt Lancaster), who can make or break the careers of actors, musicians, and comics with the mere flick of his pen. One of my favorite lines from Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman’s infinitely quotable screenplay is uttered by Lancaster, as he sharpens his claws and fixes his predatory gaze down on the streets of Manhattan from his lofty penthouse perch: “I love this dirty town.” Now, I don’t know if writer-director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu intended this as homage, but there is a scene in his new film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) where a character looks down at the streets of Manhattan from a lofty rooftop perch (after accepting a “dare” to spit on a random pedestrian below) and gleefully proclaims, “I love this town!”
Inarritu’s protagonist, on the other hand, would seem to have more of a love/hate relationship with “this” particular town; to get more neighborhood specific, with the Great White Way. His name is Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton), and he’s doing all he can to keep mind and soul together as he prepares for the opening of his Broadway stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. There’s a lot riding on this project; Riggan is a movie star who has gone a little stale with the public in recent years. His main claim to fame is his starring role in a superhero franchise centering on a character named “Birdman” (I know…rhymes with “Batman”, but I won’t belabor the obvious).
In the meantime, the Broadway locals are sharpening their knives and getting ready to pounce on yet another one of these hack Hollywood “movie stars” who thinks he can just come traipsing into their sacred cathedral, make a pathetic grab at street cred, then go gallivanting back to his Beverly Hills mansion. Locals like Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), a powerful New York Times theater critic (with strong echoes of Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker) who tells him (in so many words) that she is going to “kill” his play… before she has even seen it.
Adding to Riggan’s stress is his strained relationship with his acerbic, fresh-out-of-rehab daughter (Emma Stone), who he has hired on as his P.A., and his girlfriend/fellow cast member Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who is less than pleased with his ambivalent reaction to her announcement that she is pregnant. An eleventh-hour replacement of one of his key players by a mercurial method hotshot (Edward Norton) exacerbates Riggan’s anxiety; especially after he deliberately derails the first preview performance by going off script and upstaging the star with manic improvisations. As Riggan cracks under the strain, he begins to receive advice and admonishments from Birdman (not unlike Anthony Hopkins and his dummy in Magic).
If you love tracking shots, you’ll have a dollygasm watching this film, as Inarritu and his DP Emmanuel Lubezki have seemingly conspired to concoct an extended 2-hour 12 inch dance mix version of Orson Welles’ audacious opening sequence in Touch of Evil. While this gimmick neither detracts nor adds anything to the story (aside from quite literally “moving things along” in the event you should encounter any lulls in the narrative), I felt it worth mentioning for anyone prone to motion sickness. The vacillating tonal shifts from Noises Off-style backstage farce to dark satire, with a light seasoning of magical realism and occasional forays into mind-blowing fantasy sequences, could be jarring to some; yet cozily familiar to fans of Terry Gilliam, or Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
While the central tropes of the film are somewhat dog-eared (Which holds more “truth”-stage or screen? If “acting” is, by definition, pretending, does a performance have to be “real” to be valid, or considered artful? And who gets to call it “art”…the critics? What the fuck do critics know, anyway? Did I just invalidate my entire review with that last rhetorical? Was that a wise move on my part? How do I now make a graceful egress out of this endless parenthetical? Why am I asking you?) Inarritu has framed them in an original fashion.
Most impressively, he has coaxed consistently top-flight performances from a sizable cast, which also includes Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis and Amy Ryan. Keaton has never been better (and the concept of such a great comeback performance by an actor playing a character who is an actor hoping for a great comeback performance is a veritable Matryoshka doll of super-meta). Oh, and you will believe a man can fly. Or not.