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Birdman — a movie by Alejandro González Iñárritu

images (37)The spirit of Samuel Taylor Coleridge has to be invoked practically every minute Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman” digitally projects on the screen.

While Michael Keaton, in his best role of this century, does a manly job of expressing his character’s frustration, angst, and desires, his character, Riggan Thomson, a name that already screams “fake,” an actor seeking a grand comeback in an earthy Broadway play 20 years after being a pop culture idol as a superhero called Birdman, elicits no sympathy. He’s less than an anti-hero because his problems lie in ego and possible schizophrenia that may be shared with or affect other people but seem contrived and exaggerated beyond belief.

That’s where Coleridge comes in. “Birdman” requires such deep and constant suspension of disbelief, it isn’t too long before it exceeds “Oh, brother” tolerance and becomes a piece of self-conscious populist twaddle masquerading as an intense character study of a troubled, unfulfilled man.

I know the movie is considered tough and raw and all of those words that get critics who adore “edge” into states of rapture. I find the movie false, ignorant, and emotionally inert. Riggan Thomson’s plan for a return to current household recognition fails to interest me the minute the internal logic of “Birdman” goes awry. Even jokes, like another actor in Riggan’s play glomming all the attention from the New York Times Arts & Leisure section — twice — while the show is in previews, plop with leaden thuds, because Iñárritu lacks the lightness or the wit to make anything that grazes the satirical or underscores Riggan’s raft of disappointments pay.

And that’s not all Iñárritu lacks. While the director seemed to intimately know or understand the worlds he depicted in truly fine films — “Biutiful,” “Babel,” and “21 Grams” — he asks too much when he expects people to buy into his wholesale misrepresentation of professional theater or Broadway where Riggan is banking on a triumph that will catapult his reputation beyond any summit he reached as Birdman. Almost everything Iñárritu shows is false, misguided, and unworthy of suspension of belief. About the only thing I suspended was an urge to walk out of Iñárritu’s movie. I stayed only because I didn’t want to miss any of the alleged genius and searing insight into the human psyche reports on “Birdman” led me to expect.

Hah! More the fool I! Like a salesperson who can’t resist a colleague’s pitch, I let the word of other critics fill me with anticipation of film at its best. What a letdown! What a lesson!

I know. Movies don’t have to be accurate. They are meant to be dramatic and can bend rules or logic to get to the essence of a situation and reveal something that is larger and truer than the facts at hand.

I say this all the time, especially to people who insist on absolute documentary when they’re dealing with fiction.

“Birdman” tested my patience and wore it out. I have watched many a movie or play about newspapers, television stations, charities, travel, all things I know a lot about, and shrugged off details that didn’t mesh with the way things really work. Like anyone who knows a topic well, I came up with simple or practical solutions to dilemmas that agitated the characters. Yes, real life is different from the alleged mirror up to nature plays and movies present. But you satisfy yourself, Coleridge-style, by realizing that if all was logical and comme il faut, there wouldn’t be a play or a movie. The drama and conflict that drive such works of entertainment wouldn’t be gripping or involving enough.

I tried to remain calm as “Birdman” got pretty much all references to the theater wrong. I didn’t want my disdain for Iñárritu or his co-writers, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinalaris, and Armando Bo, making the theater what they need it to be to distract me from concentrating on Keaton’s performance or Riggan’s story.

No luck.

For two reasons.

The first is the liberties Iñárritu and company took regarding the theater were too egregious and too out of character to accept. Disbelief would only be one element that would require suspension. Logic and proportion would have to go out of the window as well.

All right, for a movie to have the lead character in a play enter the stage and take a seat that would put his back to the audience and keep him invisible from every sight angle, can get a shrug. It works for the camera. It doesn’t have to be real. Ignore, and watch what matters to the movie.

But then a light that is being adjusted falls on an actor’s head. Iñárritu treats this circumstance almost like a comic moment. Real panic or concern for the colleague and human that was injured is absent. Later, you find out why, and I’ll address that in a moment. But the initial reaction is disturbingly unreal and unsettling. It lacks humanity.

OK, you say. That reflects the coldness and undivided attention to self that is essential to Riggan. Then you learn Riggan does have some supernatural, or at least, psychic talents. He is gifted in psychokinesis. He can make objects move at his will. Though you wonder at first if this is Iñárritu showing Riggan fantasizing and have a question or two whether the kinesis is an illusion of Riggan’s or something that really happens, Iñárritu repeats the instances of Riggan making objects skip at his command, thus creating objective reality. Iñárritu confirms through dramatic convention that Riggan can control objects and that he has at least one trait that might be useful to a superhero like Birdman.

Return now to the fallen light. Before the “accident,” you are privy to Riggan’s thoughts that the other actor is not pleasing him. Riggan, the producer, director, and star of the play he’s doing, an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” thinks his co-star is hamming up his scenes, being “stagy” and considers firing him. Then the lamp falls. Boom! You eventually realize Riggan used his kinetic abilities to make that happen.

On a black comic note, it establishes him as a man who will go to any means to make his production a success, even attempted murder. On another plane, and the one that takes the most root and has the most credence, Riggan commits a despicable act, one that erodes any sympathy you may have had for this has-been longing for renewed adulation.

In addition, Keaton, playing Riggan is hammy and stagy in his line deliveries and stage scenes. If I were inclined to be charitable, I could take this as Keaton and Iñárritu being wittily ironic. Look at that, Riggan almost kills another actor for being no less histrionic and oversized that he is going to be.

The sad case is I don’t think Keaton or Iñárritu plotted that gambit wittingly — or wittily. They played all straight and thought they were conveying one idea when they were projecting another. The whole sequence illustrates how thoughtless Iñárritu is and adds to disregard for Riggan’s emotions or wishes. Early on, we learn Keaton’s character isn’t worthy of our time or interest. Let him be a has-been. Let him be a suicide. We’ve given up caring about him.

Another theater-related scene is even more annoying. The injured actor has to be replaced. It turns out that another member of the cast, played with integrity rare to “Birdman” by Naomi Watts, is living as paramour with one of Broadway’s leading actors, a critic’s darling and fan favorite played with panache by Edward Norton.

Riggan and his factotum, acted decently if unconvincingly by Zach Galifianakis, regard getting Norton as the coup of a lifetime. To their delight, he agrees to come aboard.

Then things really go haywire, and not satirically or realistically, only idiotically.

Norton’s character is a method actor who wants everything to be authentic. If Iñárritu knew anything about a light touch, Norton’s Michael could be a comic joy, a lampoon of the pompous actor who claims he is protecting his art when he’s vaunting his ego and seeking publicity, a bombastic sort that nonetheless knows how to cleave critics and the theater audience to him.

Norton borders on letting Michael have some comic sway. But Iñárritu is so intense, he forces you to take what happens seriously. Get ready for the next “Oh, brother” moment.

In the middle of a preview performance, in front of a paying audience, a rather full audience, Norton’s Michael has a tantrum. The gin in his glass is water. How dare anyone besmirch the sanctity of honest drama by switching the alcohol that drives Carver’s story with mere H2O? How dare anyone think he cannot hold his head and give a stunning performance even if plied with genuine gin for the two hours the play lasts?

Michael leaves his seat and starts opening and slamming cabinets, pointing out everything else on the theater set that is fake or not in keeping with his standard of verity, as opposed to verisimilitude. His rage is unbounded, his fit going way beyond hissy to spewing contempt and condemning everything about Riggan’s production of Carver’s story. He even denigrates Riggan as — gasp — a movie star posing as an actor.

The audience is stunned, as are Michael’s co-stars. The only possible move is to wring down the curtain and end the play three scenes earlier than scheduled.

Foul! Foul! Foul!  Norton’s scene is not entertaining or enlightening. It barely establishes Michael’s character let alone serving “Birdman” or its plot. The whole sequence is gratuitous and annoying. It’s attention-getting, but it’s also Iñárritu indulging himself with high dudgeon and heightened drama that is intended to look as if it has a purpose but is really showy diatribe. The director and his writers add insult to injury when they have Michael say, “That’s what previews are for. Everyone understands that.”

No, Michael. That is not what previews are for. No actor is entitled to disrupt and curtail a play because of his pique about some element of it. That is done after the audience leaves. Or during rehearsal which continues during previews. Iñárritu acknowledges nothing about convention or professionalism that Michael, as a Broadway veteran and matinee idol, would have etched in every fiber of his being.

That’s why, deft as Norton’s performance is, it doesn’t register as satire. It’s too far-fetched and too indulgent. Coleridge, what hast thou wrought?

More and more things that would never happen are taken for granted in Iñárritu’s movie. After a while, the preponderance of ignorance  becomes laughable in unintended ways.

Even when that happens, the character study “Birdman” purports to be is weak.

Riggan Thomson is just not likeable. Even when you understand him, he is too selfish and needy to elicit much sympathy.

Riggan is going through an ordeal many actors face. His fame and recognition factor are intact. The Birdman franchise was too big for them to fade. But his career has gone nowhere in two decades, and his reputation comes from playing a cartoon figure. Like George Reeves in “Hollywoodland,” Riggan is also haunted by being branded as a minor actor who played a major role. He chooses to dramatize the Carver story, in itself a futile effort if you know the mostly narrative and untheatrical “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” to show he is a serious artist who wants to bring a gritty play to Broadway and show the depth of his talent.

All of this should make you care for Riggan. So should the idea that he may not have the craft to do what he craves to do.

But it doesn’t. Riggan’s plight and attitude become details that could trigger regard but don’t because the man is so inconsistent, self-destructive, and unlovable. One even wonders why his ex-wife and daughter care about him. Riggan is so ripe for defeat and while a part of you can’t help wanting him to win out in the end, it isn’t a deep want because Riggan doesn’t persuade he deserves success or that he has the ability as a thinker, writer, producer, director, or actor to bring about a meaningful coup de théâtre.

This colors Keaton’s performance, admirable in its scope and in the actor’s ability to play individual scenes. Keaton creates an image of Riggan, but it’s as amorphous as the character’s personality. You know what Riggan is trying to accomplish, but there’s no core of humanity in him to promote warmth or foment affection. Keaton’s Riggan is an intellectual construction, an actor working at building a living person brick by brick or sequence by sequence rather than presenting us with a complete, if troubled, person who is sculpted out of all the complicated quirks, talents, and desires that inform his being. There’s no genuine emotional base on which to pin a character. So, you see Keaton working and are impressed with much that he projects, but none of it grabs you and makes you feel for Riggan Thomson.

You do feel for Michael Keaton. This is an actor whose career is full of lovely small portraits. I often say every film era has a pair of leading men who show up in comedy after comedy for about a five year period. Keaton’s counterpart in that was Tom Hanks, who has gone on to show his range and earn acclaim beyond his gift for mild entertainment.

“Birdman” is Keaton’s chance at a comeback, a chance to show that he, too, has acting chops that put him in award contention and display levels of ability his comic performances, or even his laudable turn as the gravedigger in “Hamlet,” have not given him the chance to show.

Keaton, like Riggan, has a role that restores his place in the movie star firmament. He does well with it, but because of Iñárritu’s excesses, his performance is more of a succes d’estime than a bona fide work of brilliance. Riggan is not even an anti-hero because the only thing heroic about him is his willingness to stake his personal fortune on a folly he hopes will bring him grandeur and place him among respected, and not just popular, actors.

images (38)Riggan is popular and remembered. You know that because when, in a contrived but surprisingly effective scene, he is locked out of his theater and takes an unlikely two-block walk through Times Square in his jockey shorts, he is mobbed and cheered and praised and admired. As Riggan’s daughter, played with more heart than usual by the overrated Emma Stone, says, he received more publicity from the Tweets and YouTube entries people posted than Michael got from both his New York Times features combined.

Riggan is also haunted. In a plot line that isn’t developed enough, he is often goaded by his alter ego, the ghost of Birdman, outfitted and solid enough to be considered more than an apparition, to go back and make a belated sequel to his series, or to be the superhero he played. Iñárritu has Riggan flying like an actual bird over the roofs of midtown Manhattan, and the final scene of the movie implies, from Stone’s expression, that he literally can fly, psychokinesis be damned for a minor talent.

I imagine fans of “Birdman” find humor is the Murphy’s Law aspect of Riggan’s theatrical endeavor. Lots go wrong. Some of the misadventures should be funny, but, again, I find Iñárritu too ham-handed and earthbound to take “Birdman” to airy or high comic heights.

Except for the actress Watts plays, and Amy Ryan, as Riggan’s former wife, Sylvia, no one in “Birdman” seems genuine or worth the effort to care about. One appreciates Watts’s characters hopes for Broadway recognition from her first major role on the mainstem and roots for “What We Talk About…’s” success more for her good than for Riggan’s.

That good, good actor, Amy Ryan, makes you believe Riggan has enough depth to warrant Sylvia’s continued interest. Sylvia is the one bona fide adult in the movie, and you long to see her just to get a whiff of reality.

Lindsay Duncan, whose performance in “Le Weekend” ranks as my choice so far for Best Actress of 2014, acquits herself well in the unflattering and smugly written role of the New York Times critic who has the ability to make or break Riggan’s production and tells him she intends, sight unseen, to break it.

We learn what Iñárritu or his writers think of critics, but the conception of Duncan’s character is too broad and seems to included more to for the writers to get in some polemic than for a real purpose.

Emma Stone at least makes you interest in Riggan’s daughter who works as an assistant on her father’s production but wants to be treated like just another theater wonk instead of the boss’s child.

Stone convinces she is a young woman attempting to recover, within reason, from addiction and that she is clear-headed and not blinded by the sporadic attention of her father, who seems to be more watchful when she dallies with Norton’s Michael than in general, and the coolness of her mother. One scene that seemed more than a little out of kilter for me was one in which Sylvia is visiting Riggan in a hospital when Stone, her daughter, arrives too. Upon Stone’s entrance, Sylvia leaves. I don’t even know whether mother and daughter kiss. It all seems so unnatural, even given what you know about the family dynamics in “Birdman.”

Stone has some fine scenes with Norton on the roof of New York’s St. James Theatre where the cast and crew escape for air and for smoking. Naturally, Iñárritu being Iñárritu, they have to commit a juvenile act while kidding around together in the Manhattan heavens.

Nothing in “Birdman” registers as true or affecting. A man can all kinds of anxiety and ambitions, but they go for naught if he can’t make someone care about them. Iñárritu is never skilled or talented enough to bring “Birdman” to a head. It was never completely watchable or enjoyable. And it wasn’t uncomfortable in the good way that makes you delighted to be tense and nervous.

I’m guessing Iñárratu intended of comedy featuring the brand of disaffected people Raymond Carver depicts in his stories. The difference is Carver knows how to weave a tale in which conversation supplants action but keeps you interested. Iñárritu creates a mess that is neither fish nor fowl dramatically and just comes off a pregnant folderol, and ultimately boring as that.

 

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