Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu challenges us every step of the way. What is the meaning of life? What is the nature of love? What does it mean to be relevant? What makes you feel real?
By pushing our face into these questions, not by blowing up buildings or plundering comic book superheroes, Inarritu has emerged as the most interesting, entertaining, skillful and challenging director of the last decade. 21 Grams (2003), Babel (2006), Biutiful (2010) are all arguably the best or among the best films in the year of their release. In Birdman, he returns to unrelentingly pursue the pain of existential questions. Black humor, sudden plot turns and broad pornographic humor give us respite. But ultimately no misery will be spared in his search for answers - true or false.
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), face of the action movie franchise Birdman, seeks to be relevant again by directing and starring in his Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love."
The structure of theater, the elements of staging the play, are the movie's skeleton. Most of the action takes place in the narrow confines of backstage, the dressing rooms and the theater's tight, winding corridors. Make-up, soundtracks, costumes and even wigs assume character as we are asked to compare the unforgiving nature of live theater with the broader faux heroic construct of film. Flawed action hero returns to the stage of bared emotion real acting to reclaim the mantle of relevancy.
But a series of metaphorical mishaps threatens his success. Just prior to the play's previews, the leading actor is knocked out of the part by a freak stage accident. The immensely talented, wildly unpredictable, mentally unhinged Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) steps in. Norton hijacks the play, stealing the acclaim that Keaton had worked so hard for and even ransoming Keaton's daughter to his sexual ambition.
Keaton struggles with Norton to command the play. He struggles with his lover over her pregnancy, with his daughter to expiate his parental guilt for abandoning her and with the most important theater critic who wants to break him. As if there weren't enough turbulent plot device, Keaton must also battle his alter ego, the magical realist Birdman, the very feathered emblem of his starring role in the Birdman action series. Keaton and Norton are supported, attacked, criticized, nurtured and enabled by the stellar cast of Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough and Lindsay Duncan.
The dialogue is fast-paced, spiced with clever double entendre, Hollywood in jokes and literary and social references. The direction is crisp with fluid camera streaking through the theater's backstage, to the roof and even out into the surrounding theater district streets. At times, Keaton is shunted to the background, diminished rather than redeemed, even locked out of his own play and theater. "You're no actor," the critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) tells him. "You're a celebrity. I'm going to kill your play. People love action, not talk and depressing philosophy." But Keaton persists in his raw, ribald, Icarian pursuit of relevancy and redemption. Will he fail and fall or rise and soar, finding the meaning in celebration on Broadway or even as Birdman?
Maybe the answer is with Raymond Carver, the tough working class writer whose work "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," Keaton tries to dramatize. Inscribed on his tombstone in Port Angeles, Washington, Carter muses,
"And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved in the earth."