Birdman is a high wire act for everyone involved. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu takes several formal risks since he confines the action to one small area and films with a series of complex, dizzying long takes. The cast is uniformly talented: some actors are returning to the limelight, while others prove they should be beyond typecasting. Birdman celebrates and satirizes the entertainment industry, with special attention paid to the consequences of vanity, and the literate script hits the bull’s eye more often than not. Unsurprisingly, Iñárritu nearly loses his grip on the material thanks to his pervasive sense of self-satisfaction. All good satires must be smart; here is a good satire that either lacks that confidence, or somehow does not trust the audience enough.
Unlike the sprawl of Babel or Amores Perros, Iñárritu’s best films, Birdman takes place almost entirely on one block in Manhattan’s theater district (not far from Times Square). The director, along with three co-screenwriters, is keenly aware of area’s uneasy geography: Broadway’s middle to highbrow entertainment shares oxygen with Times Square, the pinnacle of consumer and entertainment excess.
Riggan (Michael Keaton) personifies that juxtaposition: a washed up superhero star, hence the film’s title, Riggan wants to make his comeback with a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver short stories. In addition to writing and directing the play, he’s the star and sunk his own money into the production. His friend/lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) is nervous about the financials, while Riggan’s co-star Mike (Edward Norton) focuses on art and truth. The preview performances are a disaster, of course, which means the actual premiere will make or break Riggan’s livelihood.
Although the blocking must be carefully controlled, Iñárritu’s camerawork suggests has an aloof quality that creates tangential sub-plots and character moments. Like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, Birdman has the illusion of one continuous shot: whether it’s through a zoom or a breezy transition, Iñárritu’s camera never quite has a traditional cut. Most of the action happens in labyrinthine backstage hallways, so sometimes the actors go in one direction and the camera goes in another. The effect is that we feel like something between a ghost and a voyeur, which is further complicated since the actors – many of whom are playing actors – overindulge a long con about authenticity.
The most self-aware, meta character is Norton’s Mike, who is a self-satisfied, narcissistic asshole. Still, he is not stupid (Norton, an intelligent yet prickly actor, clearly has fun with this extended riff on his reputation). There is a dark sub-plot between Mike and his girlfriend Leslie (Naomi Watts) who also stars in the play: whether backstage or performing in front of hundreds, Mike jokes his way through attempted sexual assault (verisimilitude is his excuse). Norton, to his credit, makes no apologies for Mike, although Iñárritu’s satire takes an unfortunate break when it presents a situation that deserves genuine admonishment. Still, we see the uneasy balance between the stage actor and the backstage persona, so Iñárritu successfully dismantles the mystique surrounding actors while he maintains respect of their raw talent.
As the stage actors dawdle over their craft, the people responsible for the play’s production are more realistic and shrewd. Galifianakis’ Jake is funny without being a punchline; the performance is polished and confident, and hints that the one-man wolf pack has chops as a serious actor. Jake mostly interacts with Riggan, serving as something between an accountant and a friend and a therapist, while Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is more resentful and rebellious. In one especially brutal scene, Sam goes on a tear about Riggan’s inevitable obsolescence, noting how theater is a misguided way to reclaim a cultural narrative. The character is a clichéd daughter of divorce, complete with unresolved father issues, but Stone (along with Norton) rise above the material with pleasant, albeit superfluous scenes where they let their guard down.
The heady material would not work without Keaton, a brilliant comic actor who’s poised for a comeback he richly deserves. Riggan is full of hope and loathing, a blur of modern contradictions who is utterly human because Keaton keeps the synapses firing. Except when he’s on the Broadway stage, Keaton is in a series of two-character scenes, all of which are a really an excuse for an extended self-examination. Sometimes this is literally true, as the Birdman voice/character torments Riggan’s mind. Iñárritu and Keaton wisely do not explain the cause of the Birdman voice, which creates an opportunity for repetitive fantastical sequences, including one bursting with modern CGI. The mean-spirited irony is that the CGI is nowhere near as interesting as the extended scenes of dialogue. By the time a theater critic calls Riggan a fraud, Iñárritu’s persistent, invasive camera still celebrates the performer over special effects.
Birdman is gloriously hypocritical, a cinematic, theatrical satire that criticizes megalomania and celebrates genius. The film’s major problem, one that derails its accomplishments, is its attempt at grandeur. Of all the Mexican New Wave directors, Iñárritu is the most haughty and serious. He cannot simply call his film Birdman, so he includes the ridiculous alternate title The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. He cannot simply shoot around midtown, so he bookends Birdman with bizarre imagery that distracts from the action. He cannot simply have a score of minimal jazz percussion, so he interrupts the flow of dialogue with a shot of an inexplicable drummer. Iñárritu knows how to get a memorable scene and performance from his actors, but it in between these terrific moments he indulges in predictable, distracting art-house flourishes. Birdman is like the talented kid in your high school drama class: brilliant to the core, and always clamoring for another standing ovation.