Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a film that easily invites accusations of gimmickry – it’s a metanarrative that both accommodates and portends Michael Keaton’s creative comeback, shot in a series of virtuoso long takes and edited to create the illusion of being just one, filled with CGI-aided magic-realist flourishes, and capped off with a whimsical-literate subtitle that doubles as the film’s thematic crux. These attention-seeking conceits are to some extent knowingly deployed, dovetailing with protag Riggan Thomson’s (Keaton) own desperate bids for artistic validation, but it doesn’t keep the film’s cumulative effect from being one of aggressive inconsequentiality, and despite the illusion of spatiotemporal continuity that Iñárritu (working with famed DP Emmanuel Lubezki) strives to achieve, it registers as little more than a series of false starts, trading in formal and dramatic bells and whistles in the place of genuine conviction of purpose.
Surrounding Thomson, as he attempts to mount a Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, are a number of characters and spectres alike: Mike Shiner (a temperamental actor with a raging ego, played sharply by Edward Norton, who’s seemingly written to make Thomson’s creative struggles seem sympathetic by comparison), his exasperated lawyer (Zach Galifianakis), recovering-addict daughter (Emma Stone), girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), ex-wife (Amy Ryan), and Birdman himself, played by a growling Keaton in a suit. “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit,” his alter-ego taunts him with at one point.
The irony, of course, is that literal blood turns out to be the missing ingredient in the production, the apex of ‘risking everything’, allegedly integral to all artistic creation of any worth. Birdman itself, however, takes very few genuine risks; like a pretentious person preceding their every utterance with “not to sound pretentious…”, much of the film’s dialogue has the tendency to entertain the idea of wit or insight or feeling before quickly backtracking. “I’m glad you’re not a writer, because that was very Oprah, very Hallmark, very R. Kelly”, says Stone’s Sam after Mike pours his heart out to him. “I don’t even know what that means,” says Riggan in retort to Mike’s assertion that “popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” The film’s subtitle, meanwhile, turns out to be attributed to a newspaper headline, a convenient way for Iñárritu and co. to sublimate the crassness with which they underline their theme.
This inability to let theme organically emerge from story can be chalked up to flimsiness of the film’s script (credited to Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo), which starts with the choice of Raymond Carver as a shorthand for art that explores the human condition – the film also opens with a quote from Carver’s poem ‘A New Path to the Waterfall’.1 Thomson’s folly is his binary view of this production in opposition to the film’s titular superhero franchise, the former being an attempt to distance himself from the latter; the folly of Iñárritu and his writing team is the production itself, which resembles what a theatre-hater’s vague idea of what theatre looks like.
This vagueness carries over to the film’s stock ingredients for zaniness, which include a scene of Keaton running through Times Square in his underwear, Thomson fighting an underwear-clad Norton (cue whip-pan to nonplussed onlookers), Norton popping a boner onstage, and in a low point, a random girl-on-girl makeout scene between Naomi Watts (as one of the play’s performers) and Riseborough. These hackneyed Signs of Life™ instead smack of the kind of committee thinking that a writing team usually results in, along with the film’s more sober moments, especially involving Keaton’s remorse over being an absent father and his daughter’s resulting drug addiction.
As for the film’s ‘look-ma-no-cuts!’ formal strategy; Luzebski’s work is as thrillingly kinetic as you’ve heard, and it’s initially effective at drawing us into Riggan’s solipsism, until the camera starts prowling the corridors to break away from Riggan’s POV and eavesdrop on the myriad characters with a stake in the production. One could charitably chalk this up to a sub-Renoir-ian ‘spirit of generosity’, but once we start panning to the NYC cityscape for hackneyed time-lapse transitions, the sloppiness with which Iñárritu employs the conceit is hard to ignore.
Whatever pleasure Birdman has to offer, then, comes mostly from its cast. Norton’s perfect deconstruction of thespian egotism, and the support from natural comics in Stone and Galifianakis, each affectingly vulnerable and exasperated. Keaton, meanwhile, has reaped the lion’s share of the film’s praise, and he’s appealingly antic as ever, although the image of Beetlejuice isn’t too far away in his hammier moments, including an awful scene in which he takes a snooty NY Times critic (played by Lindsay Duncan) down a peg, which is when the film shows a sour vindictiveness that’s hard to shake off. It’s a welcome comeback for him, but personally, I give the edge to his supporting turn as a police Captain in Adam McKay’s underrated 2010 Will Ferrell/Mark Wahlberg comedy The Other Guys, a film that possesses a natural jazziness which Birdman, with its over-determined free-form drum score, strains for.2
That aforementioned critic scene isn’t the only moment in Birdman where possible criticisms against the film itself are made by a character, and thus supposedly deflected. Just when Iñárritu’s visual and dramatic noise starts to bring a certain Macbeth soliloquy to mind – long before its half-heartedly ambiguous final scene – Thomson passes a street derelict, yelling “it is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” to himself. And, unless Keaton inevitably claiming his Oscar (and thus completing the film’s extra-textual narrative) counts as ‘something’, the sentiment is apt.
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