Cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Birdman is a film that underlines, italicizes, and places in bold font it's undeniable artistry; a cinematic experiment with a lot of text, but almost no subtext, a frequently dazzling high-wire stunt in which nearly every cinematic trick imaginable is thrown at the screen in hopes audiences will be so caught up in it's frenetic energy to think too hard about it. It's also a satire about Hollywood hubris and artistic relevance under the guise of a superhero story that isn't as clever or funny as it thinks it is. It features sequences that will take your breath away from a technical standpoint, acting that's fully committed and at times utterly fantastic, and a kind of go-for-broke ambition absent from modern filmmaking these days. Unfortunately, it also lacks wit and dramatic heft, trading in it's more interesting thematic elements for banal dialogue and low-hanging gags. More than anything, Birdman is about performing elaborate tracking shots while orchestrating a group of amped-up thespians running around the film's central location, complete with an off-kilter jazz drumming score pounding the audience into submission.
To be fair, writer-director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (21 Grams, Babel) is going for more than zany hijinks here; trafficking in satirical jabs at Marvel superhero franchises and Michael Bay-style cinematic overload along with digs at Broadway, self-delusional actors, and the role art vs. entertainment plays in our zeitgeist culture. The problem here isn't necessarily the technique or content of the film, but rather that Inarritu isn't best suited for comedy. In fact, his past filmography is littered with death, depression, and misery; and so his attempts at concocting an acid-tongued farce often feels just as didactic as his more serious-minded dramas. Meanwhile, the screenplay is one of those "too many cooks in the kitchen" dilemmas so prevalent these days, credited to three other writers, along with Inarritu. The results are predictably scattershot; with lines about balls, twitter, and how "popularity is the slutty cousin of prestige" being especially representative of verbal inanity.
The plot follows Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a washed-up Hollywood actor who had previously starred in three blockbuster films as the superhero Birdman, and his attempts at reinventing his career by adapting Raymond Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" to Broadway. There's a frantic producer (Zach Galifianakis), a thespian girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), a first-time Broadway actress (Naomi Watts), a recovering drug addict daughter (Emma Stone), and an arrogant method actor (Edward Norton) storming in to upend the production with his unorthodox antics. Rather than tell his story about Riggan's bid for artistic redemption in a traditional manner, Inarritu frames everything in a series of extended, free-flowing long takes that puts us in a state of near-constant movement. It's a bold choice and one that highlight's the film's in-your-face bravado in a way that compliments the nervous energy of the backstage actors and technicians leading up to the opening night performance. On the downside, the very showiness of the technique also draws attention to itself in a way that could be read as arch and annoying.
Tonally, Birdman often feels like a heightened satire in the vein of Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (minus the extreme violence), mixed in with topical references to real-life stars, social media, and how art is most often perceived as a commercial enterprise. Though visually the film is immersive and unique, the writing is often flat and obvious. Stabs at magical realism; complete with the Birdman alter-ego speaking to Riggan in a Christian Bale-esque Batman growl and flying sequences above the New York skylines, are also tonally ill-judged. Clearly, Inarritu is mocking our insatiable appetite for huge blockbusters with deafening explosions and lack of narrative coherency, but his response to approximate the same loudly obnoxious sound and fury is just as irritating as the things he's satirizing.
On the acting front, Keaton is effective as a man struggling to maintain relevance in an age of viral fame, but it's unclear how much of that has to do with the baggage one brings to the proceedings in terms of the actor's past work. Though it's obvious that there's some meta-casting going on here with Tim Burton's Batman franchise looming in the backdrop, Keaton's performance is nonetheless lively, finding a nice balance between knowing playfulness and ragged tenacity. Norton steals the show, however, as a cocky thespian who's brought into the production after one of the other actor's gets injured. He nails various modes here; modulating his performance with moments of slapstick-style physicality, fast-paced line readings, and undercurrents of world-weariness. Emma Stone, meanwhile, gives the most authentic performance as Riggan's daughter Sam, a post-rehab misfit seeking to reconnect with her absentee father. Though the character is a thinly sketched "type" (as indeed all of the characters here), Stone brings something intrinsically believable and raw to it, even as she's often spouting overly-written dialogue that thuds with it's obviousness. The other members of the cast are fine, even as their characters are caricatures, or in the case of the other female performers, grossly underwritten. Watts and Riseborough make the most of their limited screen time, but the script errors by having them give into a lesbian kissing scene, something that seems thrown in as a joke rather than deepening the character's sense of emotional or physical longing. Though this tendency toward misogyny; (dick jokes, comments about female asses, and even an attempted rape scene played as edgy comedy are the order of the day here), could very well be intrinsic to the world of backstage theater, Inarritu does nothing to subvert it, which is an essential element to successful satire.
Other than some strong performances from a game cast struggling with underdeveloped characters, the real reason to see Birdman is for the work of cinematographer Emmaunel Lubezki. As his mobile camera bobs and weaves through the hallways, corridors, and backstage rooms of the theater, the effect is one of pure cinematic bliss. Even when Inarritu errors by making things a bit too up-its-own-ass clever (a shot of a jazz drummer playing the actual score of the film not once, but twice, is a bit too twee for its own good), Lubezki frames everything ingeniously; moving from snaking Steadicam, elaborate crane shots, to moments where the camera slows down to take in some quieter, more introspective moments.
Birdman is an exhausting piece of work; full of brash ambition and wildly over the top flourishes that often mistakes technical mastery for meaningful content. Though there's the possibility that Riggan may indeed be a superhero; complete with telekinetic abilities and a penchant for levitation, Inarritu is unsuccessful at tying these elements into the film's final moments, culminating in a botched ending which feels like a cheat given all that has transpired. Truthfully, though it features amazing camerawork, impeccable set design, and inspired performances, Birdman strains as a comedy and when it tries to get more serious, it lacks genuine insight into human behavior. In all of his unrelenting desire to impress us, Inarritu fails to realize that technical ambition can only get you so far; that you also need fully-realized characters to care about and a screenplay that aims higher than approximating the loud, big-budgeted empty films that it sees as a problem. In it's own hyperkinetic way, Birdman draws attention to itself in much the same way as the Hollywood trash it's commenting upon.