Film Review: Birdman

The unexpected absence of nuance

Birdman / B-

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu made a big splash in 2001 with his energetic debut, Amores Perros, a slickly schematic thriller that owed more than a little to the films of Quentin Tarantino. Since then, the Mexican filmmaker’s globe-trotting, multi-plotted films — Babel, 21 Grams, Biutiful — have become a lot less lively and far more serious. They tackle weighty ideas in weighty ways. The last word you use to describe them would be playful.

Yet Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), his latest movie, seems to be an attempt to inject some levity into the filmmaker’s humorless canon. Think of it as Iñárritu-lite, the film where he lets his hair down and mixes black comedy, personal drama, magical realism, and farce into one big quirky stew. Unfortunately, like his movie’s misguided protagonist, this reach for artistic reinvention doesn’t go as smoothly as one might hope.

Your first clue is the movie’s subtitle — or alternate title, if you will. Unlike the comic simplicity of Birdman, it seeks to justify the film’s reason for being, but really fails to provide any meaningful insight or clarity. In most books (particularly of the nonfiction nature) subtitles are a marketing gimmick, a sales pitch cleverly disguised as moniker. Here, however, it seems to be an attempt to sound poetic and profound, promising that Birdman will explicate just how righteous ignorance can be.

One might gently suggest that stronger metaphorical connections in the film to the Birdman title would’ve done the trick, but anyone familiar with Mr. Iñárritu’s work understands that he is a laughably literal artist who embraces a show-and-tell-and-tell-again aesthetic. Birdman is no exception, with dialogue so blatantly on-the-nose that I, at first, mistakenly thought it was part of the meta-joke that is the film’s plot (we’ll get to that in a minute). No such luck.

Iñárritu and his trio of co-writers turn subtext into actual text, creating characters that announce who they are, how they feel, and what they represent. Take, for instance, Edward Norton, who plays a vain but brilliant actor who can’t get hard for his girlfriend (Naomi Watts, getting to be funny for a change) but pops an enormous boner onstage. Get it? Well, if you didn’t, Norton’s thespian will later explain the sad fact of his libido and just what it says about him. See, Birdman is the kind of nuance-free film where a theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) relates, with all the subtlety of an ax to the face, her role in society, the importance of her job, and exactly how she feels about and what she intends to do to a person. To which said person then defiantly explains everything we already know about his artistic goals, while voicing his utter disdain for her profession. That same disdain, by the way, is extended to journalists in general in an earlier scene, as Iñárritu reduces them to grotesque cartoons. Spiteful much?

And yet … despite all this, despite Iñárritu’s tin ear for humor, inaccurate and archaic views of New York theater, and blatantly petty grievances, Birdman not only engages, it occasionally compels. Of course, it helps that it has such a fabulous cast to pull you into its muddled exploration of celebrity and artistry.

Michael Keaton is Riggan Thomson, a past-his-prime actor whose biggest claim to fame is a series of popular superhero movies (see the meta fiction wheels turning?). Insecure and desperate for validation, Riggan seeks redemption on Broadway, sinking his entire fortune into a self-produced, -directed, and -acted adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. It’s a risky prospect, made all the more dicey as his grip on reality slips. Not only does he believe that he has telekinetic superpowers (or does he?), his Birdman persona keeps showing up to berate his artistic ambitions.

Iñárritu has recruited ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) to cleverly shoot Riggan’s frantic and fantastical scheming with a roving real-time camera that gives the entire film the appearance of having been shot in a single, uninterrupted take. And for the first act, it works brilliantly, heightening the urgency of backstage theater while tightening the screws on Riggan’s situation.

But after that, it’s just a cool gimmick, one that draws attention to itself rather than supporting the story at hand. As Iñárritu’s narrative expands to include Riggan’s girlfriend actress (Andrea Riseborough), his lawyer and best friend (a comically neutered Zach Galifianakis), his neglected-and-fresh-out-of-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone), as well as his eager-to-lease leading lady (Watts) and her more famous boyfriend (Norton), the conceit no longer makes thematic sense since the timeline has swelled to a week instead of a day, and the POV regularly shifts away from the protagonist.

Thankfully, Keaton resists the film’s gimmickry and never lets it rip, underplaying Riggan’s desperation and anxieties. It’s a choice that grounds the picture and gives his character weight. Still, except for a startlingly personal confession to Norton, it’s never clear whether he’s supposed to be a good actor who’s been underestimated or a limited actor who’s overestimated his talents. No such ambiguity challenges Norton, who gets the hammier role and spins his poseur’s ego with just the right mix of self-absorption and self-awareness. Meanwhile, Stone steals the film away from her male co-stars, delivering a performance that’s so raw and true-to-life that she defies her stock character’s cliched underpinnings. It’s a shame that Iñárritu didn’t have the good sense to make her the center of the film.

In the end, Birdman captivates, despite its worst instincts, wringing laughs from uncomfortable moments and occasionally soaring with its flights of fancy. If it were any other director, I’d be tempted to say it was a noble failure of ambition. But given the confidence Iñárritu’s direction exudes — even as he repeatedly fumbles the film’s tone and delivers a nonsensical ending — it’s hard not view his film as an act of hubris rather than inspiration.

Birdman opens Friday, October 24. It’s rated R and has a run time of 119 minutes.

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