From the opening drum riff and the very first image of a comet burning bright in the sky, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu makes it clear that you will be using your brain throughout Birdman. The Mexican director establishes from the get-go that his story of a former Hollywood star grappling to put together a Broadway production will be an “ideas movie.”
True to his word, Birdman is rife with ideas, both thematically and in technical experimentation, that throw caution to the wind and just go for it. As one might expect, some ideas stick and some do not, but among the best of them is the decision to bring in both Michael Keaton and Edward Norton to really show us what they’ve got.
In an effort to escape his image as an aging celebrity, Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is writing, producing, directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Apparently the universe has other plans, as Riggan is pushed to his wits end by the antics of a new, difficult costar (Edward Norton), who has set his sights on Riggan’s troubled daughter/assistant, Sam (Emma Stone). If that’s not enough, Riggan also must ward off a venomous theatre critic intent on sinking the show, as well as his own impending mental collapse, brought on by the less-than-helpful disembodied voice of the character he made famous, Birdman. Oh, did I mention he may also be developing telekinesis?
At the core of things, Birdman is about Riggan’s descent into madness, and on that level, the film is well done. It can not be stated enough how much Keaton’s performance adds to the pathos of the movie, with the veteran actor expertly carrying the film. It’s Keaton’s comeback show but Norton, Stone, Naomi Watts and Amy Ryan all make their presences known. Horrible as it sounds, the plot points of Riggin’s downfall are delightful to watch in that special, dark comedy type of way.
It’s in how Inarritu goes about showing that story that things become a mixed bag. Some gimmicks are actually really cool and others show that the director is too preoccupied with making “art” that the natural intrigue gets lost in favor of manufactured intellectualism. Much as I hate calling things pretentious, this fits the bill in more than one area.
In the camp of things that are awesome, Antonio Sanchez’s 100 percent drum kit score (barring just a few classical soundtrack interludes) pays off, flooding the film with improvisational street beats that marry the film’s spastic psyche with the rhythms of New York City.
Perhaps the biggest trick Innaritu tries to pull off is the illusion that Birdman is one long, continuous camera take. While it sounds awesome in theory (especially considering Gravity‘s Emmanuel Lubezki handles the cinematography), the trick works amazingly for scenes with a lot going on, bobbing and weaving in between different character actions, then often fails in the slower sections of the story, leaving in the vacuums of momentum that editing could have rightfully done away with. By the end, most of the film’s pacing is shot.
Outside the main dilemma of Riggan’s fall from grace, Innaritu and his co-writers have a lot to say on the state of film vs. theatre, criticism, relevancy in the modern age, etc., but it too often feels just like a superficial look at these ideas (better than nothing, I guess). Character nuances are spelled out plainly in monologues, rather than shown naturally — again blurring the line between cinema and theatre for the worst.
And where would the film be without a helping of magical realism, highlighted beautifully by Riggan’s zany hallucination of Birdman himself, taunting the actor to abandon his quest for artistic integrity with lots of ‘splosions, which audiences apparently eat up. It’s a fun sequence and the most bombastic moment of an otherwise downplayed area of the movie.
Birdman is worth the price of admission alone in watching Keaton and his fellow co-stars do their thing. And while some of Innaritu’s artistic nuances definitely work — weird as it sounds — it’s hard not imagine what the film could have been if the filmmakers had played things just ever-so-slightly more straight.