Like the self-serious director in Sullivan’s Travels, Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu has seen the light, but where it took a stint in a chain gang to show Sullivan the pretentiousness of his high-minded ideals, Iñárritu just had to hit middle age. In the Q&A after the New York Film Festival press screening of Birdman, Iñárritu said turning 50 made him do a lot of thinking about how his ego has been a “huge” driving force in his creative life, telling him one minute that he’s great and the next that he’s nothing, in what he described as “a constant bipolar process.” The film that thinking inspired him to make, a delightfully light-footed cautionary tale about the perils of selfishness and ambition, is a welcome change from meretricious bummers like 21 Grams and Babel, which attempted to improve our moral fiber by rubbing our noses in melodramatic misery.
An actor in full midlife crisis, Birdman’s Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is desperate for respect and validation as an artist. That means proving—to himself as well as the public—that there’s more to him than Birdman, the superhero he played more than two decades ago. So he goes the famous-actor version of full Monty, writing, directing and starring in a certifiably serious work of art on Broadway—in this case, an adaptation of Raymond Carter’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Scrambling to put on his play, Riggan, whom we first encounter the day before his first preview, is surrounded by actors as insecure and ambitious as he is, all of them immersed in hackneyed crises of their own. Circling this frenetic bunch are his ex-wife, Laura (Amy Ryan) and daughter Sam (Emma Stone), the film’s voice of reason and Riggan’s last hope for a fulfilling life. Riggan may give himself all the best lines in his play, but Sam gets the movie’s money line when she tells her father: “You’re afraid, like most of us, that you don’t matter. And guess what: you don’t. You’re not important! Get used to it!”
Iñárritu and the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki choreographed the bulk of the action to create the illusion of one continuous take, a fluid dance in which the actors are in constant motion. The camera tracks first one character and then another as they move onstage and off, all around the theater and sometimes outside, and from one charged conversation to another. That constant motion and the film’s propulsive drum score create an energy the actors build on. There are no small emotions or events in this world, and Iñárritu’s excellent cast plays every one to the hilt, delivering big, bold performances as their characters fret about their status, rage about their relationships, or rant at Riggan.
The too-neat parallels between the lives of the actors and the speeches they deliver in the play sometimes strain credibility, and one character, the fearsome New York Times theater critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), who threatens to “destroy” Riggan’s play before she’s ever seen it, feels improbable, a wicked witch straight out of Grimm. But everyone else is ultimately loveable, even the most neurotic and self-involved exhibiting flashes of humor, humility and empathy. The credit for bringing out their humanity goes partly to the cast, of course, but it starts with director and co-writer Iñárritu, who can now find humor as well as heartbreak in the hopes, fears, and ridiculous dreams that make us human.