Have you ever been to a vanity production? Los Angeles is full of them. Maybe some wealthy grandparent is footing the bill for a production taking place at a grungy little theater. The critics might be seated strategically between the relatives and others who are sure to laugh or sniffle loudly as the your-so-vain actor takes center stage. Sometimes, the show is by a minimally talented performer attempting to reinvent his or herself. There’s a lot of ego involved and “Birdman” is about vanity and ego with courageous performances by Michael Keaton and Edward Norton.
Alejandro González Iñarritu gets in their faces and doesn’t spare either actor in this black comedy. You want to see these men nearly naked emotionally and physically? This is your film, but don’t expect spray-tanned and great abs. Iñarritu has really taken the vanity out of a movie about vanity productions.
Written by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo, the movie’s full title is “Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” opened the 71 Venice Film Festival and has been in limited release in the US since 17 October 2014.
In “Birdman,” Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor who once starred in three blockbuster movies about a superhero called Birdman. That was two decades ago and in order to revive his career, Riggan writes, directs and stars in an adaptation of the Carver short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is the title of a 1981 collection of short stories by Raymond Carver as well as the title of one particular short story there in. The short story is about a 45-year-old cardiologist Mel and his second wife Terri talking about love with their two friends, Nick and Laura, at their house over a bottle gin.
The gin should be a hint, but Carver’s didn’t write about conventional love. Terri remembers an abusive boyfriend who loved her so much he tried to kill her. That guy then stalked Terri and Mel and made Mel so fearful he bought a gun.
Riggan’s best friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) is financing the show. Riggan’s girlfriend Laura (Riseborough) is also in the show. While for Lesley (Watts) this is her first Broadway show, popular method actor Mike (Edward Norton) is sure he will be the big draw. In order to afford Mike, Riggan has made a deal that won’t delight neither his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) nor adult daughter Sam (Emma Stone) who is also his assistant and a recovering drug addict.
While an anxious Riggan is troubled by his inner thoughts which we hear mocking him at times and yet encouraging him at other times, he also have to confront Mike. Mike not only irritates Riggan, but also Lesley feels that Mike goes too far in their motel sex scene.
Riggan anxiety increases when he reads early reviews that praise Mike and his self-esteem is damaged enough when he meets an influential critic Tabitha Dickinson who seems to doom the whole enterprise. Tabitha detests Hollywood celebrities who prance on stage but have neither the talent or the stage craft.
The voice in Riggan’s head becomes more insistent and Riggan seems to believe that he is Birdman, he almost seems to be able to perform telekinetic acts.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography simulates one long take, making it seem as if this is reality and yet the script questions what is reality. Method actor Mike attempts to bring reality to his love scenes and Riggan seems to be losing touch with reality. When he commits an act that the critic calls “super-realism,” I couldn’t help thinking of UCIrvine MFA performance artist Chris Burden. In his 1971 piece at a Santa Ana (CA) studio, Burden had an assistant shoot him in the left arm with a .22 rifle.
“Birdman” isn’t a movie for the squeamish although Iñárritu and Lubezki suggest rather than expose the gore resulting from the gunshot. Theater critics might be peeved at being portrayed so unfairly. Most newspapers, the ones that had a healthy theater section written by staff writers, go to great lengths to appear neutral and as objective as possible in what is a subjective exercise. Both the LA Weekly and the LA Times had rules and best practices to that effect.
Still despite that minor quibble of the theater critic portrayal, “Birdman” takes the vanity project, strips the actors vanity, requiring brave performances in the face of potential humiliation, and then doesn’t give us the kind of ending we might expect.
This is a movie for theater lovers and actors and those who love and support them both.