I opted to see this at the last minute, instead of Interstellar, because I worried that Interstellar might have too much of a feeling of self-importance about it for an early Saturday matinee. Hoo boy. There is no doubt in my mind that I made the wrong choice. Birdman wants to say something about what it means to be an artist — what it means to invest your heart and your soul in a project and to be racked with anxiety over the potential outcomes: fame! fortune! ruin! mockery! — but the chosen method of delivery is a hoary old backstage drama bereft of ideas.
Director and co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu has a good cast perform character sketches, not characters; occasionally they brush up against each other at high velocity, creating sparks, but eventually everyone just fades into the background except the cliché at the story’s center, Riggan Thomson, the aging thespian whose bid for relevance in the 20th century is a turgid, overbaked stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver story that’s bleeding him financially and emotionally. I think Michael Keaton is very good in that role, but Iñárritu threatens to smother him completely with a suffocating addiction to filmatism.
I’m not even going to complain about the multiple invisible edits that Iñárritu seems to want us to pretend are seamless transitions from scene to scene in a long continuing shot. The conceit does work to diffuse the portentousness that has weighed down his other films. Thanks go, I guess, to his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who has been doing this kind of thing for years. But he’s not content to let Lubezki’s endlessly roaming camera have that freeing effect. He draws attention to the artifice of the thing by shooting “impossible” mirror shots, evidence of the camera painted out in post, and pushing the “camera” through a centimeters-wide loop in wrought-iron filigree where no physical movie camera could ever fit, which replaces a kind of fussy grace with sheer ostentatiousness.
Having pointlessly positioned Birdman as a VFX film from the get-go, Iñárritu gets little mileage later on from the “surprise” incursion of Hollywood blockbuster visuals on his character drama. And then, having at least established a fanciful context for Riggan’s mental illness, he squanders it because he doesn’t trust the audience to suss out the magical realism, sending a bit player into frame to make it clear that Birdman took a cab. And as far as what we’re meant to glean, messagewise? Hell, your guess is as good as mine. Just when I thought Riggan had been painted pretty definitively as a likable yet self-destructive artist, not to mention a profoundly selfish one who had betrayed the trust of his collaborators, Iñárritu appends a smug little coda that gives the film a stupidly happy ending that doesn’t jibe with its own previously established ground rules. Yeah, I’m sure Iñárritu had a specific reading in mind, but I can’t see how it would add dimension to the overall effect one way or another, which makes it a useless appendage.
Maybe I was especially sour on this because I just spent so much time watching and rewatching All That Jazz, which is basically Birdman minus its superpower gimmickry, but I can’t really credit it with any insight on the artistic process beyond Keaton’s portrayal of Riggan, which feels genuinely prickly and alive. Emma Stone lands some nice deadpan blows and Norton adds some liveliness to proceedings when he’s on screen. Those performances aren’t quite enough to get the showy but desperately ordinary Birdman off the ground.