Silver Screen: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) ***1/2
Hollywood’s obsession with superheroes and pandering pap is the target of the showbiz satire Birdman, which is by turns wrenching, arch, meandering, self-congratulatory, and solipsistic. It’s a daring technical experiment you want to praise and a masturbatory metafiction rendered insipid by its eagerness to flatter its creators and audience alike.
The real question: Is Birdman the best worst movie of the year or the worst best movie of the year?
At the very least, Birdman has three unassailable assets— Michael Keaton, Michael Keaton, and Michael Keaton. The one-time standup comedian evolved from inspired comedic roles to heavier dramatic stuff before retreating from the limelight not long after his turn in Tim Burton’s Batman movies. That reputation looms omnipresent over Birdman, where Keaton plays an actor in full, panicked flight from his own career-defining superhero role.
Keaton’s Riggan Thompson is struggling not to be consumed by regret. The blockbuster movie series that made him a household name also typecast him out of the market for other parts, and the subsequent fame distanced him from his caring ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and troubled daughter Sam (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab and reluctantly working as her father’s assistant.
Riggan’s gambit to regain control of his life and art is a Broadway play based on the stories of the great Raymond Carver, who once praised his performance in a high-school play and set him on the path to professional acting. Riggan will write, direct, star in, and self-finance the production. Trouble is, the play is a disaster, an inert, talky thing in no way improved by its director’s ongoing nervous breakdown. A pair of neurotic lead actresses (Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough) and a talentless costar (Jeremy Shamos) threaten to sink the production even before prickly theater critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) has a chance to lambaste it in the Times.
In a desperate bid to patch up the play, Riggan convinces tempestuous method actor Mike (Edward Norton) to sign on, but his diva antics only bring more chaos into the mix. Oh, and also Riggan is either hallucinating, or he may in fact be Birdman and possess real-life superpowers.
As a technical exercise, Birdman is an unqualified success. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu stages the film as a series of extremely long takes that fit together uninterrupted to conjure the sensation of one protracted hallucination. (Alfred Hitchcock employed a similar technique in Rope, although Iñárritu’s transitions— wayward pans and tight zooms— allow for the passage of time, as opposed to Hitchcock’s attempt to recreate a real-time stage play.) The long takes give the performances plenty of room to breathe and, impressively, don’t often call attention to their own technical difficulty. The result is both dizzying and grounding, and nicely conveys Riggan’s perspective on the production as an exhausting, neverending nightmare. If he achieves nothing else, Iñárritu’s grimy realistic aesthetic captures the chaotic backstage bustle as well as anyone since Robert Altman in his one-two punch of The Company and A Prairie Home Companion. That same realism also provides a stark, fascinating contrast to the occasional flourish of special effects and two scenes of pure fantastical splendor.
The performances, too, are dynamite. Keaton’s first starring role in a decade allows him to showcase his exceptional range and reminds us that he still is one of America’s best actors. Norton doubles down on the energy as Riggan’s foil, an enfant terrible of the theater whose obsession with artistic purity has rendered him an empty vessel unsuited for life anywhere but onstage. In contrast, Zach Galifianakis is uncharacteristically (and impressively) low-key as Riggan’s besieged manager and producer. Stone goes caustic without losing her adorable pluckiness, although she, Watts, and Riseborough suffer the unfortunate fate of having their characters entirely defined by their relationship to the movie’s men.
So why, with all these accomplished people working at the top of their game, is Birdman so stubbornly unsatisfying? The movie’s persistent smugness is a major factor. For all its jibes about moviemakers stooping to appease audiences with escapist pap, Birdman panders like hell to its chosen audience of arthouse film buffs who are constantly reassured (within the text of the movie, and also the meta-text) that they are connoisseurs of meaningful art. The movie prides itself on its ironic in-jokes and invites audiences to revel in their own cleverness. Norton’s brazenly caustic portrait of the noble artiste, part poser and part sociopath, is the movie’s most biting and redeeming bit of satire. The rest is a self-aggrandizing testament to the importance and soul-draining difficulty of acting. Perhaps that’s Birdman’s greatest sin— to posit itself as a sendup of Hollywood only to reveal itself as a navel-gazing ode to its most successful citizens.
The actors have a sense of humor— Norton and Keaton especially— but Iñárritu does not, as anyone who’s suffered through the piously somber Twenty-one Grams, Babel, and Biutiful can attest. Perhaps that’s why Birdman’s attempts at dark comedy come out too harsh, its players too caustic, the dialogue more shrill than crackling. The feverish conclusion abandons all pretense of sardonic wit and gives way entirely to melodrama in not one but a series of endings, as though the director and his team of screenwriters can’t quite reconcile the tangle of themes and plot threads, especially the ultimately superfluous gimmick of Riggan’s superpower dilemma. When at last Birdman actually does end, it’s a coy, arthouse cliché finish that proves ambiguity is not inherently meaningful.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.