Director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu is not known for subtlety when it comes to the message of his films, but they at least have a singular vision. With his latest film Birdman, however, it seems to have a lot of things to say but can’t decide what it wants to be. It’s a satire, a black comedy, a postmodern drama, and an artistic crisis piece all wrapped together into an ambitious, yet flawed, final product.
Birdman tells the story of actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a has-been Blockbuster star who attempts to reignite his career by writing, directing and starring in a theatrical adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. It’s no coincidence that Keaton was chosen for the role, given his tenure starring as Batman in Tim Burton’s mega-hits. In fact, the cast is littered with superhero movie actors, including Edward Norton and Emma Stone, and there’s an aspect of meta humor that pokes fun at many other famous actors.
Let me start with the positives, of which there are many. Innaritu and Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski (Gravity, Children of Men) have crafted an absolute marvel of a film from a technical perspective. It’s constructed to be a (nearly) uninterrupted two-hour long take as the camera follows characters through the labryinthine Broadway theater and beyond. While not the first time this particular conceit has been used in a film, it’s certainly the most effective use of the technique I’ve ever seen. Birdman is also host to the best ensemble cast of the year, with Keaton and Norton in particular being the standouts. Some characters ring more true than others, but that’s more a fault of the screenplay than the talent of the actors.
Where the film is less effective for me is its tone. It makes fun of superhero movies and takes a clear stance on their artistic merit (Innaritu was quoted in an interview describing them as “cultural genocide”), but it’s even more critical of theater and the air of superiority that surrounds it. So does that mean Innaritu finds himself to be the happy medium of the two? There’s a certain pretension around the message that rubbed me the wrong way. I find it hypocritical that he criticizes certain superhero films that “purport to be profound,” yet his own films, for me anyway, aren’t as smart as they think they are. Weird tonal shifts creep up throughout, where the movie experiments with surrealism and messes with our perception of the strict realism established for most of its running time. These moments mostly don’t work for me, and it’s because of this that the enigmatic ending leaves me with mixed feelings.
Yet, against my own better judgement, I find myself infatuated with the movie. For every scene that irked me, there were five more that floored me. Birdman ultimately bites off more than it can chew with its muddled themes and abundance of characters, but I can forgive all of that to recognize it as an engrossing, wholly original work.