Is it possible to respect and enjoy a film without necessarily liking it or wanting to fully recommend it to anyone? If so, that’s how I feel about Alejandro González Iñárritu’s backstage comedy Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), a wordy, literate film that couldn’t be more “inside baseball” if it tried. On many levels, it’s a marvellous film with exceptional performances and an unparalleled technical accomplishment. On the other hand, unless the viewer is an extreme film or stage nerd, there’s precisely nothing here to like. At all. Period.
Being someone who has grown up and lived to talk about the minutiae and history of film stars and stage productions, I get the jokes here and see what Iñárritu and his three co-writers are striving for. But the more I think back on the film’s construction the colder I feel towards it. There’s a decided air of smugness that even overtakes the already supercilious characters and a final note of defeatism that ultimately destroys any philosophical message the movie was clearly trying to convey. These are huge problems for such an ambitious film, and ones that never quite get addressed or can be reconciled logically. As such, Birdman becomes nothing more than a glorious, disorienting mess.
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) made his career playing a big screen superhero in the 1980s in a tentpole studio franchise. When that well ran dry and with Riggan still fancying himself a serious thespian, he struggled until he decided to mount, direct, and act in a legit production of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. When the show flounders in previews and loses its second billed actor, Riggan casts enigmatic pain in the ass character actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a showboat with a bad attitude, his own ideas, and admittedly a better hand on the material. With his world unravelling and the show about to open, Riggan’s crisis of faith also has to withstand confrontations with his long suffering assistant (Zack Galifianakis), his sarcastic, fresh out of rehab, stagehand daughter (Emma Stone), Mike’s girlfriend (Naomi Watts) and co-star having doubts about her personal relationships, getting dumped by his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), a New York Times theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) who has it out for his production before she even sees it, and occasional visits from his still sympathetic ex-wife (Amy Ryan) who seems to only exist to remind Riggan how great his life used to be.
There’s no getting around saying that Birdman is an arrogant film about arrogant people. Iñárritu’s direction relentlessly and feverishly matches the pace of talented lunatics who try to come together to form a piece of art without a shred of common ground between them. It’s exciting to watch if one has ever seen behind the curtain or camera of a production, and the banter when the film stays in the moment feels realistic. Exchanges about bringing Mike on board to help ticket sales, a bit with an awkward roundtable interview, and a compare-and-contrast set of confrontations between the theatre critic and Mike and Riggan’s separate confrontations with her crackle with an undeniable immediacy. It looks and sounds like how people in the industry address each other when they’re at their most honest. Again, I fully expect no one but the most hardened industry nerds to understand it, but I can see why praise has been heaped in the film’s direction. It’s jokes are narrowly pitched, but they hit the mark more than they miss, hitting satirical targets and the intended audience with the same amount of efficiency.
Iñárritu’s core problem is that he can’t sustain that honesty. To a certain degree, Birdman would work better if it could narrow itself even further, even if that narrowing just means a reworking of Noises Off minus the musical numbers. Every time Iñárritu struggles to say something about the human desire to stay relevant, youthful hubris vs. veteran instinct (via a subplot involving Norton and Stone that grinds the film to a deafening, screeching halt whenever it takes centre stage), or our current critical landscape being dictated by social media trends, the film disappears up its own ass. The film stops sounding natural and organic and instead sounds like actors reading lines that were written by a teacher to stop the film and spell out a message for the audience. It’s unsubtle and heavy handed.
It helps that such lines are delivered by actors like Keaton, Norton, Stone, and Galifianakis who can deliver them with a perfect amount of gravity and inflection. Even when it’s impossible to believe anything they’re saying, the tone of the film is so wild that it’s only a matter of time before it goes back to characters that sound like normal human beings. Keaton delivers his best leading performance in decades, but he does so with an inner monologue from his former superhero alter ego that’s trying to get him to come out of retirement. It’s a very confused character since Riggan has to be both brilliant and stupid often in the same scene, and Keaton conveys a perfect amount of intelligence even when the script lets him down. He’s also a generous actor that realizes that despite being the star of the film, everyone around him needs to constantly get the better of him. Keaton becomes what he needs to be: even more of a ringleader and orchestrator than Riggan would be. In many ways, he’s a better director and gauge of the material than Iñárritu.
The work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Children of Men, The Tree of Life) and editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione (both of whom shared an Oscar on Iñárritu’s grossly overpraised and semi-offensive Babel) can’t be oversold. They truly make the film dazzling enough to work and comprise the only elements that will make casual filmgoers care about anything that happens. Shooting and crafting the film to look like it takes place over the course of only a handful of really long takes certainly requires Iñárritu to make sure his blocking and pacing is tight, but these are the people who hold the film’s visual splendor in place. They’re the ones realizing a vision just as much as Iñárritu is. What they have constructed is nothing short of a TECHNICAL masterwork within a film that doesn’t quite hit the mark, but their contributions to the project demand to be noticed within a film that’s already desperately pleading to be noticed.
And that’s the final souring note of Iñárritu’s production. For all its showiness and balance between the comedic and the dramatic, it’s an enormous letdown when it turns out that the film’s garrulous title isn’t anything more than a cynical joke and that any knowing audience member (i.e. the ones clearly being aimed at) should realize they have been tricked into the same cynical and defeatist film that the woefully pretentious Iñárritu has been foisting on audiences for years. It almost tricked me into thinking that the film would end miserably, but when Birdman ultimately becomes a miserable film about the power of selling out your ideals in the wake of a bad decision, the joke stops being funny. There’s a larger discussion to be had, but there are termites at the wooden heart of this film and they work there way through the entire fabric of the screenplay.
So do I like Birdman? Begrudgingly. There was plenty there to keep my own selfish interest in the chatty material, and I like the talents of everyone involved once Iñárritu’s self-serious smugness gets taken out of the equation. In reality, though, there’s nothing in here to be said about fame, celebrity, and the art of creativity that hasn’t been said better since Jean Luc Godard covered the same ground in the 1950s and 60s.
Although it’s referring to a different kind of film entirely, there’s a great quote from Roger Ebert that pops into my head when I think of Birdman and the critical reception it has been getting: “I think it’s one of those films people like so much while they’re watching it that they’re inclined to think it’s better than it is.”