By Abhishek Jha:
“A thing is a thing not what is said of that thing“, reads a note on the mirror in the dressing room of Riggan Thomson. He is a Hollywood actor who once played a comic book character called Birdman and is now adapting a Raymond Carver short story for the stage. In the same vein as the story of the play, where two couples just sit and talk about love and their love lives, the movie talks a lot about movies and movie-stars. A lot is said about “that thing“.
But unlike Carver’s short story which hovers over a single conversation, the movie is rather chatty, with narratives feeding each other. We know, for instance, that Keaton played Batman once (if one doesn’t, Birdman’s voice is a recurring reminder) and that he hasn’t been in many successful films since then, much like our struggling protagonist. While Riggan prepares for his comeback, he struggles with his inner demons (the ghost of Birdman keeps speaking to him), and it is clear that the play is not going to be just what it is. It repeatedly evolves, like life or love itself, depending on what is being published in the papers about it, depending on what’s happening backstage in the personal lives of the actors, what people are tweeting, and the fear of how Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) will review it in the New York Times.
At once, buoyed by praise, Riggan becomes calm. The next moment, taunted by the inner voice of Birdman, he is raving mad about being “a washed up superhero“. One sees this repeatedly underscored by the title of the play: ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’.
And it’s a word about life. Through some cunning act of deception, Emmanuel Lubezki makes the movie look like a single take, the flow of the movie becoming a metaphor for life (so watch closely). And even in this uninhibited flow is a jazzy spontaneity supplemented by the percussion-only tracks by Antonio Sanchez. The rise and fall of music evoke a flapping or soaring bird, reminding us all of the iron claw of Birdman (“When I’m working, my Birdman, my ego, becomes really big,” Iñárritu, the film’s director, confesses). But spontaneity also implies anticipation, and anticipation, excitement. And for bringing that sort of excitement in a movie that could easily have turned into a pretentious thing where artists talk about other artists and high-falutin artsy things, Iñárritu cannot be commended enough.
Packing punch as supporting cast are Emma Stone and Ed Norton. In the movie, when Sam (Emma) disparages her father’s (Riggan’s) self-obsession with, “You are not important. Get used to it“, one can only sit back and smoke pot like Riggan does. It is gore via dialogue. Mike (Ed Norton) on the other hand is the diametrical opposite of Riggan. He is a seasoned theatre actor, is wily at times, and no doubt hits it off immediately with Sam. He’s the perfect comical antagonist, fighting Riggan in his underpants and jeopardizing the play just because Riggan replaced his gin with water. So, when he mocks Riggan with, “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige“, one can only get more convinced of Mike’s superciliousness. Such little aphorisms- reminding us of the Norton from Fight Club- give a turn to the character that builds on the actor’s history, like Birdman and Batman.
All this and the anxieties of relationships between the characters- mirroring at times the relationships of the characters in the play- make the movie a big juicy sphere. And biting it all round is the Birdman himself – Riggan, giving us a full “range”. One just can’t have enough of it.
Birdman has answered Hollywood’s Trivial Pursuit question: “People, they love blood. They love action“. And we can watch it while we talk about love.