What if Riggan Thomson, the character at the heart of Alejandro González Iñárritu's Broadway tale Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), was a stand-in for the Mexican director and his current status in world cinema?
In the plot Mr. Iñárritu devised with his screenwriters, a note-perfect Michael Keaton plays the has-been film star attempting to kick-start his career on the New York stage. Indelibly linked to an action-movie super-hero franchise but fallen on hard times since he turned his back on it, Riggan desperately yearns to be accepted and taken seriously as a legit actor, hence his all-or-nothing decision to stage on Broadway an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story which he has written and directed and stars in. Cue the obligatory cynicism from sneering critics, purist actors and pretty much everyone around him, including his "Birdman" alter ego whispering in his ears all the time; all of them see in Riggan nothing other than a talentless arriviste that doesn't have "what it takes" to make it on the "real stage".
And, in a way, Riggan's position, between the devil and the deep blue sea, is a very good metaphor for Mr. Iñárritu's own precarious stand: a director unrecognised as a serious auteur by a hard core of critics and press for whom he's a flashy director with little substance, while acclaimed by the more mainstream adult audiences and less demanding critics who eagerly lap up awards-fodder prestige pictures. A clearly talented director whose sincere earnestness about social issues has led him to frame them too often in overwrought melodrama tropes, Mr. Iñárritu is aiming for something else with Birdman: a study of what defines a man's success in a society where perception has become more important than substance, where form is taking precedence over content.
That is exactly why it's such a disappointment that the Mexican director has approached that study through form instead substance. Since Birdman is structured as a trip inside Riggan's mind as the opening night approaches and everything seems to unravel around him, the film unfolds in a continuous, non-stop, one-take tracking shot à la Russian Ark - a tour-de-force from the great DP Emmanuel Lubezki that is, obviously, forged, but remarkably so. The constant steadycam, underlined by Antonio Sánchez's percussive score, creates a sort of fugue state set in a perpetual present, where you can never be entirely sure of what is actually happening and of what (if anything) Riggan is hallucinating.
But just as Riggan struggles to not be overpowered by the "Birdman" that keeps sabotaging him over his shoulder, so the daily backstage dramas become overpowered by the showmanship involved in such a technical achievement. Every time the camera slows down, Birdman becomes a better film, by ejecting the overarching need to keep up the concept, by just focusing on actors portraying characters. The first time the film comes to a standstill - an extraordinary rooftop dialogue between Riggan's world-weary daughter (a wonderful Emma Stone) and his mercurial, Method-acting co-star (Edward Norton) - unveils just how exciting the whole project could be.
Unfortunately, soon the camera gains speed again; these quieter moments are few and far between, and Mr. Iñárritu's film turns into a frustrating testimonial of a piece caught in the exact same trap it wants to denounce: mistaking perception for content, form for substance. More's the pity - the Mexican helmer is excellent with his actors (a dazzling but underused ensemble of talent), but the overarching concept of a continuous tracking shot forces them to take the back seat and turns Birdman into a disappointing, wasted opportunity.
BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)
Cast Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts
Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu; screenwriters Mr. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo; cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (colour); composer Antonio Sánchez; designer Kevin Thompson; costumes Albert Wolsky; editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione; producers Mr. Iñárritu, John Lesher, Arnon Milchan and James D. Skotchdopole; production companies Fox Searchlight Pictures, Regency Enterprises, New Regency Pictures, M Productions and Le Grisbi Productions in association with TSG Entertainment and Worldview Entertainment
Screened November 30th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon (distributor advance screening)