Is this real or is in the mind of the character? This is the question we ask ourselves as we watch the story unfold in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and what Inarritu poses to the audience through his portrayals of the world of theater and how people and actors perceive their craft and its effect on culture.
Birdman is about Riggan (Michael Keaton), an actor best known for her work as a famous superhero character who is now putting on a Broadway show as his comeback. He is joined by his daughter/assistant Sam (Emma Stone), a new to Broadway actress named Lesley (Naomi Watts), his manager Jake (Zach Galifianakis), and his latest girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough).
But things are shaken up after an actor goes down and Riggan decides to let Broadway-vetean Mike (Edward Norton) join the show in order to boost the interest. This and the fact that Riggan is clinging on the idea of redemption through this greater art is what drives him to push forward even when he is pushed over the edge at times by Mike, Sam, and the theater critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan).
Inarritu creates this close-up reality that for the two hours the audience must live in. Give or take a few scenes that take place outside or in a nearby bar, the film is completely shot within the confines of the backstage and theater that the play is taking place in. That, and the fact that he and director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki make the film feel like one continuous shot, make for an experience unlike anything seen in awhile (except maybe Lubezki’s work on Gravity).
But experience aside, the real meat of the film comes from the story and the themes and beliefs that Inarritu is pushing on the audience about art, its place in life, and the people who bring it to the public. In the beginning of the film, on Riggan’s TV, plays images of Robert Downey Jr. and other famous superheroes as they cash in their monster checks. This is played in Riggan’s head by Birdman (also Keaton) who works as a strange, demented conscience of Riggan.
Inarritu makes it clear that Riggan didn’t take the money. The character says himself that he decided against doing a fourth Birdman movie, to which a reporter delightfully believes that this is the actor’s next step. What Inarritu asks is whether fulfillment can come from “low brow” art like movies (and specifically superhero movies) or if an actor must come to the theater in order to get the most pure version of their craft.
This what Mike believes and his insane tactics that include getting drunk for real on stage and actually having an erection during a sex scene with Lesley are all to make the performance more real, which is something Riggan holds on to in the version of a signed napkin by Raymond Carver that he received after a performance in college that the author was attending.
There are issues that seem to blur the lines between being an outright satire of theater culture (as in the film being an insight into the minds of actors and how they work) or this being a soapbox deceleration by Inarritu about the decline in pure art (and this film is his response to The Avengers and the new Hollywood).
It could be most easily comparable to The Wolf of Wall Street in how it handles commenting on a culture. In the Martin Scorsese film, the director does a good job of never making the audience feel like this is something to strive for. When reading between the lines of dialogue by Leonardo DiCaprio, this is something that is wrong and we understand that and go along for the ride.
I struggled to ever feel like I was “going along for the ride” in Birdman and at times felt like Inarritu was submitting his agenda on the audience in a rather pretentious way. This is unfortunate, because as I mentioned before, the experience of the film is purely worth the price of admission.
Whatever agenda Inarritu has, Birdman is one of the year’s best with two stellar performances by Keaton and Norton. Behind the social commentary is a rich story of redemption and whether what Riggan is doing is purely for him to become a better person or for him to feel better about the craft he is participating in. At times inspiring, Birdman soars.